2020 In Review

Oh, what a year was 2020. This is a post I have planned to do annually for approximately the 20-year life of this blog, but I don’t think I have ever done a comprehensive year-in-review. Though all subsequent annual round-ups may seem boring by comparison to 2020, this is a good place to start.

The State of the World

While it may be tempting to call 2020 a “Black Swan”, there is nothing about 2020 which was unexpected. COVID-19 was recognized in late 2019 (thus the “-19” part of its name), and alarms were raised anywhere people would listen. Of course very few people listened, or they did and reacted stupidly, and thus the rest of 2020 turned out the way it did. As of the writing of this post (December 31, 2020) I know at least a dozen people who have contracted COVID, some of them severely, though none have (yet) died of it. The United States passed 343,000 dead in less than a year, and who knows how things will continue into 2021; though with the ominous groundwork laid here so far, I can only imagine that bad things will continue, and also get much worse before they get better.

I adjusted quite easily to social distancing and quarantining myself, mostly because I seek solitude, but also in part because my job does not require that I be any place in particular. Thus I spend the majority of each day in my office on a laptop, staring at JavaScript until it makes sense or goes away.

The 2020 general election was a colossal shitshow, as is everything which emasculated manbaby Donald Trump, patron saint of Daddy Issues, touches. The existential stress the past four years came to a head on election day as the American electorate turned out in unprecedented numbers to kick Trump to the curb. The fact that there was any doubt at all that this would be the case is a terrible indictment of the USA, even worse than that there are enough racist, misogynistic, gleefully ignorant voters to put Trump in office in the first place. But to attempt to do so a second time is absolutely mind-boggling.

Relationship

2020 was the first full year in which I lived with a significant other. Zyra moved in in mid-summer 2019, after spending most of her time here anyway, due to terrible weather and the fact that four or five of her tiny apartment could fit in my average-sized house.

What can I say? Things are going well so far. We work well together, and we are also respectful of each others’ space, which is so very important here in the plague years.

The biggest change for both of us (other than co-habitating) was the arrival of Poe, our small female ginger cat who arrived the day after Christmas 2019.

Thee second biggest change for us (other than co-habitating and the arrival of Poe) was the arrival of our new and incredibly fluffy ginger kitten Pepper. Pepper arrived fresh from the same farm in the upper peninsula which generated Poe. As near as we can tell they are cousins, but with isolated colonies of feral cats, the lineages tend toward brambles instead of trees.

Martial Arts

In past years, Master Lee’s school has held or participated in four events annually – a Chinese New Year dinner in early February; the Grand Rapids Festival of the Arts and the Grand Rapids Asian-Pacific Festival in June, and Sifu Day in late July or early August, depending on the specifics of the Lunar calendar. In 2020, due to COVID-19, every event after Chinese New Year was cancelled. This was certainly for the best, as our class, though overall much healthier than the average of the West Michigan populace, also skews toward the older end of the spectrum.

I wasn’t particularly upset about the cancelled performances, as we have participated in the Festival of the Arts every year it has been held since the late 1980s, and a break to reset the psyche can be welcome.

The cancellation of Sifu Day, where traditionally the entire extended class, as well as friends and family, gathered for a huge potluck, hurt. It is my favorite of the annual events and we were not even able to visit with Master Lee, though we did a drive-by visit of sorts and dropped off food and gifts for him and his wife.

The downtown YWCA closed, so our classes moved online, with senior instructor Rick Powell running Zoom sessions at our normal class times. This took some adjustment, as suddenly he was doing all the teaching himself, with no assistance from any of the other instructors. And Master Lee of course was not able to teach through zoom due to not having the technology available to do so.

But we persevered, and when the weather grew warm in June we moved classes to Wilcox Park in the Eastown neighborhood of Grand Rapids, where we practiced in the grass and under trees until the end of October, when due to the uptick in COVID-19 cases we returned to exclusively remote classes.

I expect that as weather permits we will move back outdoors, possibly as early as March. It all depends on the state of COVID.

I loved the outdoor classes. In past years I have spent most of every weekend at the Lake Michigan lakeshore or out and about in the various fields and forest and trails with my camera, enjoying the beauty of natural Michigan. With travel sharply curtailed by COVID, my girlfriend’s sprained ankle, and the existence and proliferation of violently stupid conservative anti-maskers in Michigan, we decided to stay around the house. And with the downtown office closed so I wasn’t walking the mile to and from work every day, the enforced outdoor slow-time was much appreciated.

Reading

This will be covered in more detail in other posts, but in spite of the shakeup to the schedule, this was a great year for reading. I completed something over 80 books, primarily thanks to a deep dive into R.A. Salvatore‘s Forgotten Realms novels in July and August, and to participating in the Sealey Challenge in October, where I read a book of poetry a day for a month. Those two reading events added up to over fifty books, and the rest were a scattering of fiction and nonfiction from March to December.

2020 was also the year where I focused my attention on short stories, and though I fell far short of my goal of reading at least one a day for the entire year, I did manage to read slightly over 100. Most were genre, though I did skip around in the literary fiction realm. For the first two months of the year I focused exclusively on short fiction (other than finishing a book I had started in December), and it wasn’t until mid March that I picked up longer works again. I read primarily fantasy, thanks to picking up a big old pile of books at ConFusion in January. Many of the books were self-published, and this prompted me to throw caution to the wind and write a fantasy book of my own.

It isn’t done yet.

Writing

I hit the ground running with writing this year, and though I did not meet a single self-imposed deadline I managed to complete a few short stories, multiple poems, and a little over 25,000 words of a new novel.

Then, somewhere around the beginning of October, I hit a wall and didn’t write anything other than journal entries for the rest of the year. So while I wrote quite a lot, at the moment I feel like I didn’t really accomplish much of anything.

This is, of course, inaccurate. In April Portage Magazine published my poems “Afternoon Traffic” and “Percussion”. In September I was notified that one of my short stories, “Occupied Space”, will be published in January 2021 by Coffin Bell.

These are my first non-solicited works to be published since 1999. In any other year this news would have increased by an order of magnitude my writing drive, but here at the end of 2020 my drive is at an all-time low.

The novel is one I was inspired to write after spending most of ConFusion 2020 hanging out with a group of authors who have found success self-publishing their work. They introduced me to the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off (or “SPFBO”) which is currently in its sixth year. To cut to the chase, I am now completely sold on self-published books of any genre. The winners (and also most of the runners-up) of the SPFBO are every bit as good as any fantasy novels published traditionally, and in many cases are even better, with the added feature of not being hindered creatively by the need to satisfy a corporate bottom line. So if and when I complete this book I will go the route of the self-published authors, of whom I am now an avid fan.

Family

I don’t see much of my family anyway, so this year was no different. My nieces are growing like weeds, and my brother contracted COVID though his symptoms were mild and his recovery rapid. My mother and step-father are in their mid 80s and dealing a wide variety of health issues so I saw even less of them this year than usual. As for my extended family, I never see them anyway so this year was no different from any other.

Work

The downtown office closed on March 15, 2020, and I have not been back since. Working from home is not difficult for me, though when the weather is nice I do enjoy the walk downtown, and I do miss the mid-day walks along the river.

The year started with the last few weeks of a year-long project which was actually interesting and fun (for certain work-constrained values of ‘fun’), with an excellent team of folks.

Then I was on a month-long project in March in which I was cheerfully thrown under the bus by the project lead.

In early April I was assigned to a project which had me working third shift, 18:00 to 06:00, four nights a week for five weeks, then second shift, 14:00 to 00:00, five nights a week for five weeks, then first shift, 09:30 to 18:30, through the end of July. Let me just say that third shift was a whole lot easier when I was 21. And yes, on third shift those were twelve-hour days.

I spent much of August and September taking classes toward getting certified in one or more AWS Cloud specialties, and then I was assigned in rapid succession two projects, one of which is currently underway.

All of which is to say, work in 2020 was eventful.

To Sum Up

2020 was difficult. Not as difficult for us as for many, but not easy by any means.  My brain is still in a fog and I find it difficult to focus on anything for more than a few minutes at a time. This makes reading and writing especially difficult, but helps when dealing with a new kitten.

I am glad 2020 is over. Though arbitrary temporal divisions have no physical impact on life, being in tune with the zeitgeist means that midnight tonight is a good time to let go of a lot of psychic baggage and try to regain, cautiously, some sense of optimism that, if 2021 will not necessarily be appreciably better right away, it will stop getting worse at such a rapid pace.

And it that leaves a lot of room for things to still be pretty bad, it also opens the door to hope, which is the thing with feathers, beautiful and delicate and always in danger of being eaten by feral cats.

Books I Read in 2020

This is the list of all 86 books I read to completion in Calendar Year 2020.

I started the year focusing on short fiction, as detailed in other posts. Then the lockdown hit in March, and I was put on a crazy work project in April which had me working 50+ hour weeks, second and third shift until the end of July. In order to stay sane and balanced I switched to long-form fiction, and specifically fantasy fiction.

This was driven in no small part by a decision to write a fantasy novel. At ConFusion 2020 I spent a lot of time talking to a number of self-published authors, who have found varying degrees of success in their craft. All of them, however, were quite happy with the self-publishing route, and in reading their work I discovered for myself that which many people have known for a long time: Self-published work can be just as good, or even better, than work published through more traditional means.

These authors introduced me to the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off, the winners and runners-up of which are equal (at least!) in quality to the best of traditionally published fantasy.

I have been well aware of this with reference to poetry, but for some reason the blind spot around self-published prose was more difficult to, well, see.

So I read a lot of fantasy, including the first nineteen books in R.A. Salvatore’s Legend of Drizzt sequence set in the Forgotten Realms setting of Dungeons and Dragons. There are 36 books in the series, but after 19 the boundary between reality and not-reality was beginning to blur.

In October I participated in the Sealey Challenge and read 31 poetry books in 31 days, which did wonderful things for my state of mind.

In November and December I read many of the novellas I have accrued from Subterranean Press. This also did wonderful things for my state of mind.

Anyway, here is the list. Next year I will break the long-form reading list up and combine it with the short fiction lists I have posted at the end of each month.

2020.03.05: Valencia, Sayak – Gore Capitalism

2020.04.06: Gibson, WilliamNeuromancer
2020.04.08: Walton, DavidThe Genius Plague
2020.04.09: Indiana, RitaTentacle
2020.04.11: Mieville, ChinaThe Last Days of New Paris
2020.04.12: Bacigalupi, PaoloThe Alchemist
2020.04.16: Steinmetz, FerrettThe Sol Majestic
2020.04.28: Jemisin, N.K.The City We Became

2020.05.05: Salvatore, R.A.Homeland
2020.05.08: Salvatore, R.A. – Exile
2020.05.10: Salvatore, R.A. – Sojourn
2020.05.12: Rowland, DianaMy Life as a White Trash Zombie
2020.05.23: Wang, M.L.The Sword of Kaigen
2020.05.26: Eichenlaub, Anthony W.Justice in an Age of Metal and Men

2020.06.01: McGuire, SeananEvery Heart a Doorway
2020.06.07: Shel, MikeAching God
2020.06.18: Pike, J. ZacharyOrconomics
2020.06.28: Hayes, Rob J.Where Loyalties Lie

2020.07.05: Künsken, DerekThe Quantum Magician
2020.07.06: Salvatore, R.A. – The Crystal Shard
2020.07.10: Salvatore, R.A. – Streams of Silver
2020.07.14: Salvatore, R.A. – The Halfling’s Gem
2020.07.15: Hossain, Saad Z.The Gurkha and the Lord of Tuesday
2020.07.16: Salvatore, R.A. – The Legacy
2020.07.17: Salvatore, R.A. – Starless Night
2020.07.18: Salvatore, R.A. – Siege of Darkness
2020.07.23: Salvatore, R.A. – Passage to Dawn
2020.07.30: Salvatore, R.A. – The Silent Blade

2020.08.03: Salvatore, R.A. – The Spine of the World
2020.08.06: Salvatore, R.A. – Sea of Swords
2020.08.08: Salvatore, R.A. – The Thousand Orcs
2020.08.10: Salvatore, R.A. – The Lone Drow
2020.08.12: Salvatore, R.A. – The Two Swords
2020.08.18: Salvatore, R.A. – The Orc King
2020.08.22: Salvatore, R.A. – The Pirate King
2020.08.28: Salvatore, R.A. – The Ghost King

2020.09.03: Ward, JesmynSing, Unburied, Sing
2020.09.17: Alexander, MichelleThe New Jim Crow
2020.09.24: Ashton, DyrkPaternus: War of Gods

2020.10.01: Rogin-Roper, LeahTwo Truths and a Lie
2020.10.02: Danos, StephenMissing Slides
2020.10.03: Mandelstam, OsipVoronezh Notebooks
2020.10.04: Almeida, AlexisI Have Never Been Able to Sing
2020.10.05: Kaneko, W. ToddThis Is How the Bone Sings
2020.10.06: Coolidge, Sarah (ed.) – Home: New Arabic Poetry
2020.10.07: Cooper, WynChaos Is the New Calm
2020.10.08: ortiz, mónica teresaautobiography of a semiromantic anarchist
2020.10.09: Brace, KristinThe Farthest Dreaming Hill
2020.10.10: de Alba, Cassandrahabitats
2020.10.11: Le Guin, UrsulaWild Angels
2020.10.12: Matthews, Airea D.Simulacra
2020.10.12: Meltzer, DavidSan Francisco Beat: Talking With the Poets
2020.10.13: Rogal, LisaFeed Me Weird Things
2020.10.14: Amezcua, EloisaOn Not Screaming
2020.10.15: Stafford, WilliamMy Name is William Tell
2020.10.16: Stack, GarrettYeoman’s Work
2020.10.17: Brandt, EmilySleeptalk or Not At All
2020.10.18: Olszewska, DanielaAnswering Machine
2020.10.18: Sizemore, JasonFor Exposure
2020.10.19: Marinovich, FilipWolfman Librarian
2020.10.20: Harris, JosephLogically Thinking
2020.10.21: Harrison, JimCollected Ghazals
2020.10.22: Bettis, ChristineBurnout Paradise
2020.10.23: Gleason, RachelNew Kind of Rebellion
2020.10.24: Khayyam, OmarThe Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam
2020.10.25: Cáceres, OmarDefense of the Idol
2020.10.26: Chang, KristinPast Lives, Future Bodies
2020.10.27: Goff, NicholeAluminum Necropolis
2020.10.28: Gurton-Wachter, AnnaBlank Blank Blues
2020.10.29: Porter, BillRoad to Heaven
2020.10.29: Burns, MeganSleepwalk With Me
2020.10.30: Trier-Walker, Amy JoTrembling Ourselves Into Trees
2020.10.31: Harrison, JimLetters to Yesenin

2020.11.10: Gevers, Nick (ed.) – The Book of Dreams
2020.11.15: Palmatier, Joshua (ed.) Apocalyptic
2020.11.25: Wendig, ChuckDamn Fine Story
2020.11.28: Vance, JackThe Kragen

2020.12.02 – de Bodard, AlietteOn a Red Station, Drifting
2020.12.04 – Baker, KageRude Mechanicals
2020.12.06 – Desmond, MatthewEvicted
2020.12.06 – Armstrong, Kelley Lost Souls
2020.12.16 – Bear, ElizabethBook of Iron
2020.12.17 – Bear, Elizabeth – Ad Eternum
2020.12.19 – Grant, MiraFinal Girls
2020.12.25 – Steffen, David (ed.) – The Long List Anthology, volume 6
2020.12.28 – Kittredge, CaitlinThe Curse of Four

Introducing Pepper

On December 27, 2020, a year and a day after returning from the Upper Peninsula with Poe, we returned from the Upper Peninsula with our new three-month-old ginger kitten. World, meet Pepper. Pepper, this is the world. Or the parts of it with access to the internet, anyway.

Right now Pepper is in internal quarantine in an enclosure in my office while we wait to take her to the vet for a checkup and shots. We should be able to allow them into the same space together starting in about ten days. She and Poe have exchanged chirps and growls under the door to my office, and already Poe seems to be getting used to the idea of no longer being the only cat in the house.

Pepper is Poe’s cousin, from the same colony in a farm in Rudyard. She is sweet and crazy and affectionate, thanks to attention from the various children and grandchildren who helped to socialize her over the past two months. She weighs about three pounds, though with her fur she occupies approximately the same volume as a Volkswagen Microbus. We gave her a bath the night we brought her home, and when soaked she was about the size of a chicken drumstick.

The English language is inadequate for accurately describing the floofiness of our new kitten.

One Hundred and Eighteen Seconds

Today here in Grand Rapids we will get just under two minutes more daylight than we had when I published the previous post on December 20. And those 118 seconds make all the difference.

We are on the far side of the winter solstice and also of the Christmas holidays, with three days and change left in 2020.

One book and one magazine arrived in this past week. They are likely the last of the 2020 reading material.

On the left is the 100th (!) issue of the superb Rain Taxi Review of Books, which highlights lesser-known authors and smaller, independent presses. The quarterly magazine, along with their excellent website, are hazardous to my bank account in the same way that living a hundred yards from the best pizza and deli in the city is, well, hazardous to my bank account.

On the right is Mythological Figures and Maleficent Monsters, from a successful Kickstarter run by EN Publishing. This is a sort of spiritual successor to the old Deities and Demigods rule book for Dungeons and Dragons. Though I have not yet read through the book, I can say that the artwork is beautiful.

In reading news, not much happened last week, due to long work days and prep for holidays. Ditto for writing news.

This is the last of my weekly updates for 2020. I will post a few end-of-the-year roundups over the next week. Thank you all for reading, and good luck to all of us in the run-up to 2021.

Orange Days

Eleven days left to the end of the year, and tomorrow is the beginning of winter. That leaves a ten day no-man’s-land at the end of 2020, a sort of lame-duck December where we try to recover from 2020 and hope there is enough left in us to appreciate the first day of 2021.

One new book arrived this week – The Essential Ruth Stone, edited by the poet’s granddaughter Bianca Stone (a fine poet and artist in her own right) and published by the always-excellent Copper Canyon Press. Poe, of course, has mixed feelings; not because of poetry per se, but because there is only really room for one orange thing on the cat tree at once, and a book ain’t it.

In reading news, I have been working my way through my large pile of novellas published by Subterranean Press. Some have arrived as part of their annual-ish Grab Bags, and some by the more deliberate process of purchasing directly from this most excellent publisher. Since the beginning of the month I have read Rude Mechanicals by Kage Baker, Lost Souls by Kelley Armstrong, Book of Iron and Ad Eternum by Elizabeth Bear, and Final Girls by Mira Grant. I also read On a Red Station, Drifting by Aliette de Bodard, which was not published by Subterranean Press but was sold by them. Novellas are the perfect length to finish in a couple of evenings before I go to bed.

In writing news, still no new writing. Maybe after the beginning of next year.

Or the year after that.

Or after that.

2020 can go to hell.

Hot and Cold Running Books

As this weird, terrible, chaotic year winds down, so does my energy, and I find myself drifting without thought or emotion from one moment to the next. The days of December are blurring together undifferentiated, as did the days of November, October, and the rest. I have not left the house for more than an hour in several weeks, and there are times where I don’t leave the house at all for two or more days in a row.

That just ain’t no way to live.

Fortunately I have my girlfriend, our cat, and a great big heap of unread books to keep me from going completely feral here at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A small but most excellent stack of reading material arrived at the house this past week.

On the left is Camille Longley‘s Firefrost, from her recently completed Kickstarter campaign.

In the middle is a signed (!) copy Jeff VanderMeer‘s Ambergris, which includes the three books of the Ambergris series – City of Saints and Madmen, Shriek: An Afterword, and Finch. This beautiful compilation arrived from Midtown Reader in Tallahassee, Florida. I read part of Finch many years ago, but at the time couldn’t really get into it. In the intervening years I read (and deeply enjoyed!) all of VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy as well as Bourne, and so I think I am ready to re-enter the world of Ambergris.

On the right is the new issue of the Boston Review Forum journal. This issue is devoted to articles about climate change, climate justice, and the like.

In reading news, I am working my way through the superb sixth volume of the Long List Anthology of short fictions which were nominated for, but did not win, the Hugo awards. These books are brilliant, and I wish someone had thought to create such anthologies many years before.

In writing news…there is no writing news. Ideas, yes, but no writing. So it goes.

That’s all for now. Three weeks left in this energy-sucking vampire tick of a year. I can make it three more weeks.

The Beginning of the End of 2020

It is just my imagination, or did November seem to last several weeks longer than usual? I’m sure the drama around the elections contributed, but also likely the stress of watching NaNoWriMo come and go without participating past the first week. The last time that happened was (I think) 2016. It is quite discouraging as a writer, in particular because it was NaNoWriMo 2013 which got me back into the habit and practice of writing after well over a decade away from it. I feel like I have somehow disrespected the craft.

But I am still writing. I still get out of bed at 5:00 and write as much as I can, though with the Ricochet Kitten demanding play time after breakfast it can be difficult to focus for long enough to write a thousand words before work. Or even 100, on some days. If Poe is sick on the couch cushions, well, it really kills the creative mood.

I have a list of calls for submission to themed anthologies stretching out over the next 24 or so months, and the first of those deadlines is midnight, December 31. I have rough drafts ready for editing against the end of the year, but the holidays, even in the COVID era, take up time and, worse, attention, that I would rather put to literally creative use.

Three new volumes arrived this past week at the Library of Winkelman Abbey. On the left is the magnificent Appendix N., recently arrived from Strange Attractor Press, where great literary work is accomplished across the pond. Next to it is a standalone short story, “People of the Pit” by A. Merritt, which was included as a lagniappe along with Appendix NAppendix N. collects 17 short stories from authors whose work provided inspiration to Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson when they created the original version of Dungeons and Dragons. The book is named after Appendix N., a page of notes in the first Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master’s Guide, which listed source material and inspiration for the game.

On the right is the Winter 2020 issue of The Paris Review, which I will probably read as a counter-balance to the reality-warping power of large stacks of genre books. Not that literary fiction is necessarily any more grounded in reality than are books about ghosts and rogue AIs.

In reading news, I have been working my way through the various novellas in the library. In the past week I completed Aliette de Bodard’s wonderful On A Red Station, Drifting and Kage Baker’s Rude Mechanicals. And I just started Kelley Armstrong’s Lost Souls, which I am really enjoying so far.

I am close to the end of Matthew Desmond’s enlightening, infuriating, depressing, and brilliant Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. I just…goddammit. This book, after reading The New Jim Crow and Carceral Capitalism, angers me to the point of wanting to do something rash RIGHT GODDAMN NOW, and at the same time bringing to light the complexities, interconnections, inertia, and above all the unnecessary cruelty of things-as-they-are, which is to say that complex problems do not have simple solutions, or solutions at all that would be feasible in the current neo-feudal mode of American culture and capitalism.

And now, off to start the day, after I extricate myself from under a sleeping kitten.