Wow, reading was hard this year. So hard that I have piles of books hanging out around the house, each with a bookmark about 20-odd pages in, and digital piles too, hanging out in my ebook reader when I didn’t finish them before they returned themselves to the library. I mean, lots of things were hard this year, are still hard. It’s still a pandemic, we’re all still staying home and working from home and trying to keep it all together during a pandemic. Understandably there are also some weird gaps in my reading this year, more books than usual that I started in February or March but didn’t finish until July or August.
Nonfiction reading in particular was a challenge for me in 2020. My problems staying focused and awake while reading contributed to the nonfiction difficulties, though they are for sure not unique to me (nor new to this year). Nonbook reading also suffered a bit, magazines piled up, and my rss reader filled up too. Maybe lay some of the blame for that on the large volume of pandemic, protest, and political news I consumed this year? I also confess to falling into doomscrolling more often than I’d like, though I’ve been more successful recently in putting down the phone and picking up a book instead.
Today on the last day of this hard year I’m feeling pretty good about finishing my 4th book in 8 days; unsurprisingly, today’s my 8th day of staycation. It’s been much much easier to read in the middle of the day with a cat curled on my lap as opposed to nighttimes zoomed out after a full day of work, also unsurprisingly.
Fiction definitely predominated for me this year, though the nonfiction books I did manage to read were all terrific. I started the year with a giant academic book about menopause, as one does, which pulls together biological and historical sources from around the world. Her conclusion is that menopause is neither a medical condition nor is it an aberrant stage, and that the move of a significant proportion of a population to postreproductive status before they die enables women to help ensure reproductive success for younger women and children, and contributes enormously to our success as a species. Super interesting, even if it’s a huge bummer that the one physical complaint of menopause that does seem to be crossculturally distributed is hot flashes.
I am not the biggest fan of poetry, but I was blown away by Eve Ewing’s 1919: Poems. I love Chicago, and was ashamed to discover that I did not even know about the race riots in Chicago in 1919. Ewing juxtaposes each of her poems with passages from a report about the 1919 riots that had been researched and written by a panel of 3 white and 3 black men in the early 1920s. Powerful and a gut punch — I checked this out from the public library, but I’ve been thinking that I need to buy it, too.
In fiction, well, I read a lot of pandemic or otherwise (post)apocalyptic fiction this year. They went down easy in March and April, as sirens filled the empty streets in NYC, and in the summer, as I protested, met friends for socially distanced chats and picnics, and went for endless park walks. I also read a couple of books by First Nations authors that were especially terrific, Moon of the Crusted Snow and Empire of the Wild, the latter by Cherie Demaline whose YA book The Marrow Thieves I read 2 years ago and loved. Other fiction standouts for me were The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel and Weather by Jenny Offill.
And definitely among the best books I read this year was N.K. Jemisin’s The City We Became. Awesome, just so so so good, I cannot wait for the sequels. The first of a trilogy about embodied multidimensional cities, NYC is being born in this book but the boroughs are each embodied too, and have to help birth the primary avatar. Lots of fun stuff about NYC that locals will know and love — the big baddie ensnares Staten Island and turns her against the others (so real!). I read this during the summer as the city was protesting, Brooklyn spots like the Barclays Center and Grand Army Plaza were being used as public squares, and it helped remind me that even in this hard year this is my home and I love it.
This year’s book count is 28, lower than many previous years but still above an average of 1 book every 2 weeks, which I think I’ve decided is my minimum annual goal. Starred books are ebooks (that number surely increased), and the list below is in reverse chronological order, as in previous years.
Here’s to better days — for reading and pretty much everything else, too — in 2021.
*Pet, by Akwaeke Emezi *Long Division, by Kiese Laymon Generous Thinking: A Radical Approach to Saving the University, by Kathleen Fitzpatrick The Mercies, by Kiran Millwood Hargrave *New Suns: Original Speculative Fiction by People of Color, edited by Nisi Shawl *The Down Days, by Ilze Hugo Earthlings, by Sayaka Murata *The New Wilderness, by Diane Cook The Deep, by Rivers Solomon *Moon of the Crusted Snow, by Waubgeshig Rice *Empire of Wild, by Cherie Demaline *Me and White Supremacy, by Layla Saad How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, by Jenny Odell The City We Became, by N.K. Jemisin Topographies of Whiteness: Mapping Whiteness in Library and Information Science, edited by Gina Schlesselman-Tarango *The Factory, by Hiroko Oyamada The Glass Hotel, by Emily St. John Mandel *Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, By Emily Nagoski and Amelia Nagoski *Severance, by Ling Ma *Weather, by Jenny Offill *Lost Children Archive, by Valeria Luiselli *The Undying: Pain, vulnerability, mortality, medicine, art, time, dreams, data, exhaustion, cancer, and care, by Anne Boyer *This Is How You Lose the Time War, by Amal el-Mohtar and Max Gladstone *The Tiger Flu, by Larissa Lai Trust Exercise, by Susan Choi 1919: Poems, by Eve L. Ewing Children of Virtue and Vengeance, by Tomi Adeyemi The Slow Moon Climbs: The Science, History, and Meaning of Menopause, by Susan P. Mattern
A few weeks ago we got a birdfeeder for our fire escape and I have been amazed by the extent that it’s improved my daily life. We’ve been gradually getting more birdy as we age, noticing when there’s a chattering small bird party in local trees or shrubs, watching the bird bath opportunities in the stream and ponds in the botanic gardens. Earlier in the fall we got a Sibley guide and some beginner binoculars and have been taking them on our walks. I also started seeing the occasional mourning dove or sparrow on the railing of the fire escape, which is just outside the window next to my desk. So I suppose a birdfeeder was the logical next step.
And omg, it’s been a wild ride since then. Chickadees! Sparrows! Three obnoxious blue jays yelling at each other and shoving to get access to the feeder, one even cheekily pulling a another’s tailfeathers; they are gorgeous jerks. And house finches, with their red feathers on their head and upper body — a month ago I did not even know they existed, and now they’re regular visitors. The mourning doves, hilariously staring straight into the window at me staring at them, or trying to arrange their chub bods on the edge of the feeder to get the right angle to pop their small heads in for food. Last week’s excitement was the first visit of a couple of tufted titmouses (titmice?), so elegant with their fluffy slim gray feathers and the jaunty tuft on their heads.
The book is very good, though we’re still learning to identify all of these birds. I feel like there are a bunch of small mostly brown ones that I can’t quite name yet. Sometimes there’s a flurry of bird activity out there and it can be hard to get my phone ready to take a picture, even though I’m sitting right next to the window. Plus our window is old and has streaks despite our vigorous cleaning. But I’m working on it.
After a couple of weeks — and a couple of conversations with friends who have also jumped into the fire escape birdfeeder deep end — this week we added a suet cake in a second feeder. Fats and nuts and mealworms, yum! I’ve also been tempted to add a feeder with a roof, for when it’s raining, though I realize that’s just me anthropomorphizing because of course birds don’t mind the rain.
Is this newfound bird obsession an aging thing? A slowing down and stopping to smell the flowers thing? A pandemic-inspired seizing life outside our four apartment walls thing? Probably all of the above. On the very warm Sunday after the election we took a drive up to the NY Botanic Garden in the Bronx to walk through the Thain Family Forest, the largest area of old growth forest in NYC. The gardens themselves were kind of crowded (it was a beautiful day), but the forest was less so, thankfully. It was a perfect foliage day too — peak color on many of the trees, and leaves falling as we walked the forest paths. At one point we stopped to sit on a bench and rest, and spent some time watching two surprisingly quiet blue jays hopping from tree to tree in front of us. It was kind of magical.
I keep trying to remember to write here, I was aiming for once a month, but then September just kind of slipped away. With the semester underway work got busy, as it usually does in September, and everything seems to take longer and be more exhausting than in the beforetimes. I want what I want to write to have a narrative, to be a whole piece, but sitting here with my coffee this morning and the vague desire to write I’m coming up short, so will write short, I think.
Today I have to stop by the public library to pick up a book on hold. I still feel weird about returning to paper books from the library. I’m glad that the library hasn’t opened its spaces to patrons and is doing pickup in a nearly contactless way, everyone masked up, density controlled, limited hours. But I still worry about staff having to take public transit and work in a space with other people. It feels self-indulgent to request print books rather than just reading ebooks from the library of which there are many, though my eyes are so tired of reading on screens (and endless zooms), and I just need to take a break from that.
We took a little mini 2 day vacation a little bit upstate, and while the traffic was brutal on our way up, the rest of the trip was lovely. I’d never been to Storm King Art Center, an enormous outdoor sculpture park which as it turns out is the perfect pandemic fall outing. We also went to Dia:Beacon and I was delighted to find that both venues have Louise Bourgeois pieces. When I first encountered her art I used to find the giant spiders creepy, but now I think of them more as protective, scaring away the bad stuff.
Weekends are just so weird in the pandemic. When I worked at work all week the weekends were welcome for their lack of commute, for not requiring me to put on work clothes and make my lunch and pay close attention to schedules and maybe it’s raining on the way to work or the subway is acting up. I’ve adjusted to so much but still can’t quite wrap my consciousness around weekends not being that anymore. On the weekends I’m still tired from the work week and want to rest, but it’s not the same kind of resting when I’m in the same place I’ve been all week.
This is getting mopey, which was not my intention, so let’s end with some gratitude. I’m grateful for: my karate class held in the park 2 weeks ago, the apple cake with brown sugar frosting that Jonathan made, new sneakers (with polka dots!), opportunities to textbank to get out the vote, the mourning dove that sometimes walks along the fire escape railing outside the window next to my desk, What We Drew by Yaeji.
I’ve been trying to get into and keep to a few routines, ways to add structure to the days and mark transitions between activities. One thing that I’ve been doing more or less every workday since early May is taking a walk before work in the small park near our apartment. Sometimes Jonathan walks with me, and sometimes not. It’s almost a little bit like a commute, 20-30 minutes outside, a change of scenery and breath of fresh air before getting down to work in my home office (which is also our bedroom).
In the cooler spring months I’d get showered and breakfasted and ready before we went on our walk. Doing that same walk every day we started to see the same people every day: the dog owners and their happy puppers during off-leash time in the circular grassy area in the middle of the park, the runners and other walkers on the paths (some masked and some not). There were two families who used to meet up nearly every day at the benches near the stairs, a mom with 2 kids and a dad with 2 kids of similar ages. The adults kept to physical distancing but the kids did not, and even as mask wearing became more common they wore them rarely.
Then the weather got super hot and humid in July and the need to shower after walking became unavoidable, so I switched to taking my walk first thing after waking up. Unsurprisingly there’s a whole different cast of human and animal characters at the earlier hour: fewer puppers, more exercisers, mostly adults working out alone or in small groups, some with equipment like resistance bands and weights, often taking advantage of the reopened playgrounds which are childfree at that early hour. It’s generally less crowded earlier, too, as I remembered last week when I walked later during one of our unexpectedly cooler days.
It’s a small but lovely park, high up on a hill which means it’s usually breezy even on hot days. There are lots of old tall trees and good shade over most of the walking paths along the perimeter of the park, and a few sets of stairs to climb which my one somewhat wonky hip appreciates. On Mondays during the summer there’s often been lots of evidence of weekend fun: takeout food containers and spent water balloons and the occasional birthday balloon piled up at the trash cans, all of us in the city spending time outside whenever we can. In June a plastic dollhouse suddenly appeared in the park and I tweeted that the chipmunks were kicking it up a notch. The house moved all over the park for a few weeks before it disappeared.
As spring changed to summer we watched the plants change too, and learned which plants are where. I like to take note of fruit-bearing trees in our neighborhood just in case we ever need to forage for food (just kidding!) (mostly) — there are not one but two mulberry trees in that park, one near the main steps and one on the upper path. There’s a tree on the upper path that spent weeks growing acorn-sized green pods or fruit that have recently sprouted red-orange fringey fronds to cover them, and now they look for all the world like little growing coronaviruses. I tried to get a picture the other day but my camera wouldn’t focus on the pod, insisted on focusing on the leaves instead. I feel you, camera, it’s just really hard to focus right now.
Another month and we are still at home, though things are opening up somewhat here in NYC, thankfully so far opening slowly enough that the transmission rate is still low. Things are finishing up changing at home too — our long-delayed small renovation project is finally complete, just a few additional things to do and some rearranging related to both the renovation and the continuing necessity for most work to be mostly done at home.
I’m super grateful the renovation is finished, though wow it was not what we expected to happen. We’d originally planned to have the work done early in the year, figuring that it would be easier when the kid was away so we could use that room. But everything took longer than we’d hoped. We played phone tag with the contractor for a few weeks, then were delayed even longer when we learned that the building’s management company (which is not the same as the last time we did some renovations a decade ago, oops) had a lengthy paperwork-filled process to complete. We moved everything around in preparation in February, finally, and took a brief trip out of town, so it was early March by the time the work got started…
…and stopped 2 1/2 weeks later. By which point the kid had come home, so we moved out of his room and pushed all of the renovation stuff into the corners so we could reclaim the bedroom, suddenly more important than before that we each have a separate workspace. (It’s not working from home, it’s living at work, lolsob.)
And we were like that until about a month ago, when the city entered phase 2 and we confirmed that the workers could come back. Which suddenly threw us into spending all of our time in one room together, wow, thanking our lucky stars that the living room is a big room. All things considered we did pretty well, I think, despite the close quarters and need to mask up as folx came in and out of the apartment and still feeling that overall covid19 nervousness, even as the transmission rate continues to decline here in NYC.
It’s a relief to be back to a normal apartment, even as we’re not at all back to normal life. I admit that I’ve been surprised at how nervous I still feel about getting back out there in the world. I missed a dentist appointment in April and while there’s no immediate problem with my teeth right now, it seems like a good time to go in for a cleaning, my rational brain tells me. But even though I can walk there and I know that dental offices are taking covid19 very seriously (because realistically dental workers are more at risk than the patient is), it took me most of the day to work up to giving the dentist a call.
I was able to get an appointment for next week — guess I’m not the only person still wary about the regular stuff we have to do.
I’d meant to be blagging more here while mostly home, really I had. Despite the slow reopening here in NYC we are still mostly home, though home has been compressed some with the restart of our small renovations stopped in March when everything stopped, suddenly. The non-normalcy of the apartment over these pandemic months has been frustrating, for sure, with even less space than usual for us all to be here all the time. But in a small, quiet way I’ve been grateful for the non-normalcy, too — things are not normal, and likely won’t go back to normal either.
I hope that the new normal is more just than the old normal. I’ve been to two protests, feeling sometimes strange about being around so many other people, though grateful that most folx are wearing masks (with the notable exception of the police, who are mostly not that I have seen). I’m on tenterhooks as I imagine many of my fellow NYC residents (and especially my coworkers) are as we wait for the city’s budget to be finalized, mentally cheering on those at Occupy City Hall as I catch their updates on Twitter. Will we all know more next week, once the new fiscal year begins?
And still wishing I knew what was going to happen.
Pretty sure this is the first spring in two decades without a visit to the botanic garden. Yesterday we decided to walk around the perimeter and see what we could see from the sidewalk.
Peering in through the driveway gates we saw some tulips in the distance. Also a b/w kitteh snuck across the driveway, clearly enjoying the lack of crowds on a gorgeous spring day.
Someone had left a bagel on each of 4 tree stumps along the way, why? (Some of these are from trees lost during hurricanes and that weird tornado in the early teens).
Looking down at the tracks for the S train, used to stand at the back of the children’s garden for ages to watch for trains when the kid was small.
A lone red tulip near one of the administrative buildings, we never realized there was a path along this side.
Hard to see the tiny purple flowers amid the yellow flowers at the base of this tree with an interesting trunk, but trust me they’re there.
Pretty witch alder against that super blue sky.
The cherries are past, but the esplanade is still pretty. (Also grateful for the lovely cherry tree at the end of our block for our pink snow fix last week.)
I liked these very bright green borders up near the north entrance.
The park just next door has a view down into the azaelas, tho I accidentally focused on the fence rather than the flowers.
Light pink azaleas, plus the edge of a new cement structure in an area that’s been under construction for a while.
A closer look at the new structure. Can’t wait to see it for real when we can visit again. /fin
I’m generally pretty cynical about positive psychology/self-help advice, and my inner crank often resists the encouragement to practice naming and noting the things I’m grateful for, usually can’t quite convince myself that practicing gratitude will help. But it is helpful, actually, once I can quiet that crank down.
I miss doing so many of the things in the city that I want to do. The past few days I’ve been reminiscing about a visit I made with a few old friends last fall to the Thain Family Forest in the NY Botanical Garden in the Bronx. It’s a beautiful old-growth forest (within the city limits!), paths through trees and the Bronx River meandering through. That section of the Garden is kind of fusty, not as flashy or manicured as other areas, and when we visited it was uncrowded and quiet and lovely. Of course NYBG is closed right now, but wow after 9 weeks mostly in the apartment I would like to walk through that uncrowded quiet forest so, so much.
Back to gratitude, though. It’s also true that I’ve sometimes felt weighed down by the very enormous number of things in the city that I want to do. From expensive to cheap to free, there are so many places to go and see, so many places I haven’t yet gone and seen despite having lived here for my entire adult life. It’s not a contest, there’s no checklist or award for Doing All The Things in NYC, and as I’ve stayed inside I’ve been grateful for the lifting of that particular, small weight.
“I wish I knew what was going to happen” tweeted a friend of mine a couple of weeks or so ago. (Insert what has become the usual time has no meaning in a pandemic comment here.) I am wishing that, too. As a person who has always preferred to plan, to be in control, to know, this is a hard time. And still: grateful it’s not as hard as it could be, me and mine still healthy and safe and employed and able to buy food and wine and toilet paper.
Some views of our surroundings look normal, try to convince me that things are the way they used to be. There’s the shelf at the front of our apartment with the tv and games and records and the very neato paper art given to me by a good friend last December. But turn my head to the side to reveal the not-normal, a box of supplies for a stalled renovation, quarantined postal mail on the shelf near the door, waiting for a day or two to pass before reading and filing, just in case. The sewing machine out on the coffee table for weeks as we perfect our sewing of masks out of my stash of fabric. Who knew my hoarding keeping old plaid pj pants and other odd cloth bits would have come in so handy? And I am apparently a genius for keeping a couple of pairs of spent tights, which as it turns out are perfect when sliced up for mask ties, soft and stretchy and comfy.
We are trying to get out when we can, lucky to live near some big green spaces, though many many other people also live near these spaces. I try not to fixate on the still not insignificant numbers of people not wearing masks, especially the runners/cyclists who can be hard to avoid when they come from behind. Mentally high-fiving fellow mask-wearers, trying not to visibly stink-eye the mask-avoiders. There was a time not long ago when I was so much less judgmental about my fellow park-goers, I hope I can get back to that again.
A couple of weeks ago (for real!) we realized we hadn’t driven the car in a long time so drove out to the beach at Riis Park. I’ve been to Fort Tilden a few times about a decade ago but never to Riis Park. I think it always felt too far away and too crowded and too solely-beachy — beaches are not my favorite thing, and at Fort Tilden there’s a fun short hike to get to the beach which was pretty empty the times I’ve been. But our drive down was fast and easy, traffic very sparse, the same all over the city as many (most?) people are staying inside, saving lives, flattening the curve. The neon signs flashing those messages repeatedly all along the Belt Parkway made it feel like a disaster movie, the joy of no traffic cut through with the anxiety of disobedience. Does being in the car count as inside? Did our drive and socially distanced mask wearing beach walk unflatten the curve, even a little bit?
I have found it difficult to read beyond checking the news and state website 2x/day, really trying to keep the endless scrolling in check. So many books all around me (physically and digitally) but attention in such short supply. I suddenly noticed that the New Yorkers had been piling up on the side table and indulged in a Saturday afternoon spent mostly on the sofa to try and work my way through them. The oldest dated from March 3rd, and so it was an archaeological read through the changes happening in this city and the world, from just before things closed down to things beginning to close down to now (-ish, I’m still a couple of weeks behind). Admittedly it was a bit of a wallow, thinking about the last (and second to last) restaurant we ate in and the last movie we saw. It’s hard to believe that it’s been as long as it has, even as we don’t really know how long it will be until things change again. I wish I knew what was going to happen.
I haven’t been on the subway in 16 days, haven’t physically been at work in 9 days. That last time into work was just to check on a few things and grab some stuff from my office; I’m close enough that I could walk in, and with campus closed it was easy to stay at least 6 feet away from the few people I did see. We are all settling into our new work and college and working at a college from home situation, 3 people in (thankfully) 3 apartment rooms mostly online (though some of us are in zoom rooms more than others). The adults in the house have been fairly busy with work the past few weeks, actually, and while I do cast longing glances at my pile of unread books, I’m grateful that we are healthy and employed. We are so lucky.
I’ve found myself saying in several conversations this week — mostly proffered as one of the many reasons we are all so exhausted right now — that the cognitive load of this situation is incredibly high. It’s not just that we’re all washing our hands constantly and not touching our faces and trying to stay in as much as possible. It’s not just that we’re all suddenly working remotely, adapting to new methods of doing our work and collaborating with colleagues as well as new “office” space(s). It’s not just that the pandemic is evolving and changing so quickly while efforts by the federal government range from useless to dangerously misleading. It’s not just that we can’t travel to get to family or friends out of town, if anything were to happen to them. It’s every single one of those things at the same time.
While I consider myself to have a fairly robust tolerance for change, I am also fairly dependent on routines and habits. But while I continue to eat the same thing for breakfast Monday-Saturday, that might be my only routine that hasn’t changed recently. Every other routine and habit has gone out the window. I miss it all, even the parts I didn’t like that much, that I grumbled about or rolled my eyes at.
It has been a lot, it is still a lot. This weekend I’m trying not to work (much), and instead seeing if I can bring some focus to establishing new routines. The drastic reduction in physical activity is one of the things that’s hit me hardest. I’m no athlete but before this I did go to the gym a couple of times each week and do a ton of incidental walking and stair-climbing (like so many of us in NYC), and my body is very unhappy with the combination of less movement plus my somewhat less ergonomic workspace setup. My karate teachers are teaching our class online, and now that the weeknight session is a bit earlier than when we’re in person I can do that one as well as the weekend session. I need to figure out some other ways to get more movement into my day, and find a relatively uncrowded time for taking walks around the neighborhood or park. Maybe I’ll get my bike out and try to work some long rides into the week.
I’m going to have to let go of many of my preferred ways of doing things, because they’re just not possible anymore. I guess we all are.
Weird, weird, weird. This winter that is not a winter that is almost over is weird, and it is getting me down. It’s 53 degrees right now, will be the same and raining tonight and tomorrow. Raining! Sob. I have all manner of different kinds of outerwear, as is usual for many of us who live in cities and commute using feet or public transportation, but this year I am realizing that what I don’t have is a respectable-looking coat for when it is 40 degrees and raining. Which it has been for so so so many days this “winter.”
I am pining, pining for snow. Less than 5″ is what the official total is for the winter so far. Many winters we can get a guaranteed dose of snow when we travel to the northlands to visit family. But this year schedules dictated that our travels were just after xmas, and while there was some snow on the ground while we were there, it was not enough to nerd (cross country) ski. And in fact it also rained during our stay, and THEN had the nerve to dump a huge pile of snow the day we’d planned to leave, which necessitated our leaving early so we weren’t snowed in. The worst.
I love snow in the city, so quiet and busy-dampening. I’m so grateful to live so close to a park big enough to ski in when there’s snow. We walk through that park all the time year round, but skiing is a different way to see it. My all time favorite is when the snow happens overnight and there’s a snow day, extra found time to ski in the morning and read and snuggle with cats in the afternoon. A gift.
And there’s the lingering climate dread that this warm winter brings, too. Flowers coming up all over the place, buds on the trees, it’s just not normal for the winter. I’m trying not to be all doom and gloom but wow, it’s challenging this year. I miss you, winter.