Merry Christmas, Oh My Droogies
Looking back on the year of our lord, 2021. The good, the bad and the ugly.
This picture was taken on Christmas in 2019, just months before the pandemic swept the globe, shutting down schools and restaurants, bringing the movie business to a grinding halt and changing all our lives forever. Here I am with my girlfriend, Rachel, and my kids Tristan (then 9) and Aria (then 12). Oh sweet summer children, you had no idea what was coming.
With millions dead, millions more suffering long-term health conditions and countless others facing loss of income, mental health struggles, addiction and more—it’s kind of bizarre to think that just two Christmases ago, the world was such a starkly different place.
The last year has been hard for us all. It’s been one of the toughest years of my life. I think stress has aged me five years since January 2021. In January/February 2020 I had a six-week respiratory illness that has left me with lungs that have never felt quite as strong. It’s like when the Fire Nation attacked.
In 2018 and 2019 I started down a pretty good road of self-care, going to the gym with determined regularity, getting fit, running 5ks and feeling good. I have a Facebook memory from December 26th, 2019 that shows I went to a post-Christmas OrangeTheory class. “Well that was a tough day-after-Christmas class!” I wrote above this screenshot:
46 Splat Points! 1083 calories burned! Good grief, I’m exhausted just thinking about it. I didn’t even consider going to the gym today, though I know I should. What a difference a couple years make—a couple years and a thousand little choices.
2021 has been a blur. It’s taken forever and gone by so fast. The stress has been overwhelming.
Things are looking up, however, and I have high hopes (however foolish) that 2022 will be better, that things are changing in big, positive ways and that even with the Omicron variant sweeping the globe, it may be that the virus has shifted to a more transmissible, but less deadly, dominant strain that will have a much less dire impact on humanity.
There are other good signs and omens on the horizon, and while I’m a bit like MJ in Spider-Man: No Way Home, and think it’s wise to expect disappointment so that you’ll never be disappointed, I can’t help but be hopeful this time of year. Rebellions are built on hope.
There is good news amidst all the bad, hints and murmurs of a new beginning. We had a white Christmas, which is terribly rare these days. Glittering lights and fresh snow. We had a wet summer also, which is good news for our dry forests.
Traffic on politics-related content is way down across the internet, which is a net positive for society even if it’s bad for news outlets.1
People are tuning out of politics now that Trump is out of office. There’s been a steady decline all year. Boring Biden may be a salve for our nation’s soul simply because he isn’t in the spotlight all the time (and shouldn’t be).
We should be well-read and up-to-snuff on politics, but the obsession so many people have with the day-to-day minutia of Team Blue and Team Red and the various personalities involved in the endless squabble is unhealthy. It’s a sickness. It seems that lately, a large chunk of the populace agrees.
"Turn on, tune in, drop out,” Timothy Leary said. I can dig it.
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2021 wasn’t all bad, either. There were silver linings, mostly in the shape of entertainment and art. We went to our first live music show since the pandemic began during a trip to Seattle.
Now for a few of my favorite things.
My Favorite Article Of 2021
Perhaps the best article I read in 2021 was this foodie-refugee-memoire by Chantha Nguon and Kim Green, titled ‘The Gradual Extinction of Softness.’
In it, Nguon talks about her childhood in Cambodia and the rise of Pol Pot and the genocidal Khmer Rouge. But it’s also a story about food, and the ways food and culture informed her life and life’s work. It is a story of terrible loss, but there are passages that will make you salivate.
In 1975, the Khmer Rouge informed the Cambodian people that we had no history, but we knew it was a lie. Cambodia has a rich past, a mosaic of flavors from near and far: South Indian traders gave us Buddhism and spicy curries; China brought rice noodles and astrology; and French colonizers passed on a love of strong coffee, flan, and a light, crusty baguette. We lifted the best tastes from everywhere and added our own: sour pickled fruits and vegetables, the famous Kampot peppercorn, and the most distinctive flavor (and aroma) of all: prahok, Cambodia’s (in)famous, stinking fermented fish paste.
Even now, I can taste my own history, in shimmering sense-memories of my mother’s homemade fish sauce, the delicious soup noodles she rolled out in her hands, one by one, and my favorite of all—the pâté de foie she served to special guests.
One occupying force tried to erase it all.
Scattered throughout the piece are ‘recipes’ like this one:
Recipe: How to change cotton into diamond
a pampered little girl
2 communist revolutions
2 civil wars
Take a well-fed nine-year-old with a big family and a fancy French-Catholic-school education. Fold in 2 revolutions, 2 civil wars, and 1 wholesale extermination. Separate her from home, country, and a reliable source of food.
Slowly subtract small luxuries, life savings, and family members until all are gone. Shave down childhood dreams until only subsistence remains.
It’s harder to pick a favorite movie or TV show or video game, but I will name a few here.
My Favorite Novel Of 2021
My favorite novel of the year was the ninth in a long fantasy series, The Wisdom Of Crowds by Joe Abercrombie. You can read my review of the book here. It’s perhaps the most timely of all of Abercrombie’s books, and a sterling finale to his Age Of Madness trilogy. If you haven’t read Abercrombie’s fantasy, please do. I’ve come to prefer it over GRRM’s and not just because he puts out a new book every couple years. It’s the best fantasy out there, witty and grim and always surprising. I want more.
My Favorite Video Game Of 2021
Does Elden Ring’s network stress test count? No? Well then, I must admit I didn’t play as many games this year as year’s past. I dabbled in Deathloop and Returnal, took a stroll through Resident Evil Village and Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart, and spent a bit of time with Far Cry 6 and a number of smaller indie titles from this year and year’s past. My goal this year, however, was to really hone my skills at Call Of Duty, which I played a ton of with my kids and some friends I don’t get to see in real life very often.
But perhaps my favorite video game of the year, outside my COD obsession, was Kena: Bridge Of Spirits. It’s a Zelda-esque adventure game with beautiful Pixar-like animation and a wonderful story, with Souls-y combat and a terrific female lead—not to mention the adorable little ‘Rot’ puffballs. Definitely don’t miss this one.
My Favorite TV Shows Of 2021
My goal, time permitting, for this coming week is to write posts about my various favorite shows, movies and games of 2021, or at least a few lists. It’s pretty much impossible to pick a favorite TV show, because there were so many good ones this year.
A few of my favorites in no particular order:
Reservation Dogs on FX
The White Lotus on HBO
Squid Game on Netflix
Yellowjackets on Showtime
Dexter New Blood on Showtime
WandaVision on Disney Plus
The Mandalorian on Disney Plus
Cobra Kai on Netflix
The Witcher on Netflix
The Great on Hulu
Ted Lasso on Apple TV
Mare Of Easttown on HBO
My Favorite Film of 2021
Granted, it’s not as fun or as satisfying a movie as Spider-Man: No Way Home, but The Green Knight was powerful in other ways. No other film that I watched in 2021 was quite so strange or striking or memorable as The Green Knight. As epic as films like Dune were, David Lowery’s adaptation of the 14th century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
Dev Patel, Alicia Vikander and Joel Edgerton all turn in marvelous performances, but it’s the weird, dreamlike, often disjointed storytelling that really captures the imagination. The only thing I disliked about the film was the damn CGI fox.
I’ve also been redoubling efforts on my YouTube channel this year, slowly—painstakingly—growing it along with this newsletter. It’s not easy, especially when you’ve become something of an antisocial, depressive hermit who’s deeply self-conscious about his pandemic weight-gain. Ah well. Such is life.
I was tempted to write out my New Year’s resolutions in this post but I’ll save it for next week. I have many. I am perhaps overly ambitious, but I’m also determined. When life is hard, you have to change.
And so we must.
Merry Christmas, dear readers. Thank you so much for your support! Let me know what your favorite things of 2021 were. What books did you devour? What shows did you binge? Which movie made your heart flutter? Which game did you fall in love with? Which song is still stuck in your head?
Perhaps I chose a weird time to start penning more politically and culturally-driven content here on this Substack. In 2022, I want to focus more on the fun stuff—games, TV shows and movies, books and book clubs, etc. Lots more reviews and impressions. (Though I’m sure there will be plenty of occasions for culture war commentary).