Thoughts on the New Year, 2017 Edition

It sure looks like I’m late with this, the sixth(!) edition of my annual New Years essay. And technically, I am — I typically post on December 31st or January 1, depending on my schedule. This year, I actually wrote it early, writing over 1,200 words on Wednesday, December 28. Though it was ready to post, I never hit “publish.” I just couldn’t. It was too intense, too personal. It felt right when I wrote it, but I couldn’t put myself out there like that.

Here’s an excerpt:

But still I’m finishing this year in a deep, dark funk paralleled only by the Great Financial Freakout of 2013, when my material situation was so bad and it affected my psychological health in such a way that I was worried for my safety. The way I described it to my wife earlier this week — immediately before getting mad at her for nothing at all — is that I feel like I’m riding a wave of anger. I almost said that I’m sitting in a cloud of negativity, but that’s not quite right. It’s a wave of anger carrying me along against my will, crashing into and destroying every little ship it comes across.

Get a load of that shit. How self-involved and mopey can I get? That reads like my angsty journal entries from when I was 17.

That version of this essay focused entirely too much on last year, but in this new version I still want to look backward a little bit. 2016 did end with me feeling pretty down but it wasn’t all bad. I turned 30 and ate around 20 different pies (only a small slice of each, except for the really good ones). I had the best weekend of the year in Santa Barbara in the spring, for a friend’s wedding. My wife continues to be the best person I’ve ever known — in 2017 I hope to be even just a fraction as great as her — and with our rascal of a cat we have the best family I could hope for right now.

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Oh the Places You’ll Go (in California)

I’ve lived in California since August 2013. In the three years and five months I’ve been here, I’ve done many California things. I’ve eaten burritos in the Bay Area and fish tacos in San Diego. I’ve seen the California State Capital in Sacramento. I’ve sat in traffic in Los Angeles. I’ve been hungover on BART. I’ve gone running through beautiful countryside and exciting cities and generic suburbs.I’ve done yoga on the beach in Santa Barbara. I have a California driver’s license. I am a Californian.

There are also many, many other California things I’ve had neither the time nor the money to do. I’ve never seen a giant redwood. I’ve been to Tahoe but I didn’t even see the lake, instead spending a 36-hour bender in the South Lake casinos. Really, I haven’t done many of those quintessentially (or, perhaps, basically) California things.

I want to fix this. So here are some California things I want to do in the next year:

  • Visit Sutter’s Mill, and maybe also Old Sacramento, and definitely a gold rush town
  • Go to Redwoods National Park and see a gigantic tree
  • Spend time in Mendocino County, especially Fort Bragg or the town of Mendocino
  • Spend real time in Los Angeles, especially:
    • the La Brea Tar Pits
    • Dodger Stadium
    • Studio City
  • Visit the National Steinbeck Center and the John Steinbeck House in Salinas, and see Rocinante

Additions, December 23:

  • Lake Berryessa
  • Mount Shasta

More Music than You Can Shake a Fist At

2015 was a great year. 2016, not so much. I am not leaving 2016 with much love or nostalgia for the last 12 months. Not in the way that’s popular on the internet right now — OMG GO AWAY  2016 YOU SUCK I CAN’T BELIEVE PRINCE AND ALAN RICKMAN DIED — but, just, I don’t know. I’ll to get into it more when I do my annual Thoughts on the New Year essay in a few weeks.

It’s impossible to say it was all bad, though. This may be just a minor source of pleasure, but just like last year, I listened to lots and lots of good music. But still: while I manage to get nearly a dozen albums into this list of my favorites from the last 12 months, I honestly doubt that as many will resonate long-term as some of the great music I listened to in 2015.

In this listicle, just as last year, I am refusing to say that these are the “best” albums of the year. So many great albums came out again this year, and not just in the genres in which my knowledge goes deepest. Who am I to say what was, objectively, the best hip hop or mainstream country album? I have no clue. But I can say, objectively and without hesitation, that the new A Tribe Called Quest album was an integral part of my life immediately after the election, and I will always consider it one of my favorites of the year.

That’s enough of a preface. Let’s get into the music.

Kaia Kater – Nine Pin

Kaia Kater has so much going on that makes her pretty much the perfect artist for me: She’s a she (and I prefer Women Who Sing over Dudes Who Shout), she’s Canadian, she plays North American folk music. Nine Pin was one of the three albums I most looked forward to this year, and it did not disappoint. Her previous album, Sorrow Bound (2015) was very good. Nine Pin is incredible.

This was a great year for minimalist bluegrass records from exceptional, younger players. (The other two I was super excited about are in that same vein.) Each song on this album is distinct, original in style or arrangement, and memorable. The opening track, Saint Elizabeth, sets up the album perfectly, making it the ideal opening track:

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It Sure Looks Like I Haven’t Been Writing

And that’s not true! This year I’ve written more than I have at any point in my life, excepting of course those two years where I got paid to do it full-time. It’s just that none of it has made it to my website.

This year I finally started on my super-secret creative project, mentioned in my New Year’s post for 2014(!). Spoiler: it’s a screenplay. Learning the ins and outs of screenwriting has made me feel like this is maybe a good format for me, so I’ve been going to some table reads, talking to folks who are much better at this than I, and writing constantly.

It feels so great.

 

This Post Cost Me $68

For the third year in a row (I think), I let the registration lapse on my domain name, alexanderjh.com. I have a milestone birthday coming up, and have thoughts about it that I want to turn into a Thoughts on the New Year-style essay if I have time, so I needed to re-up my subscription.

Then I noticed that I haven’t posted since May 1, so this is the sort of filler post I write sometimes when I realize the site has sat dormant for too long. So that’s fun.

A Simple Request for Writers and Editors

Pretty much every thing I post to this site breaks my primary rule for writing. This post here has already broken it. It’s something I regularly scream into the abyss about. (That’s what I call posting something on Twitter, because my engagement on there is almost non-existent.) I’m okay with breaking it here, because this is my own site! And it doesn’t matter because who’s going to read it anyway?

The rule is this: Do not refer to yourself in the first paragraph, and definitely do not use a first-person pronoun as the first word in your lede. Made more prescriptive: Take yourself out of your story.Your article about a park ranger in the Smoky Mountains doesn’t need to start with “I,” “me,” “my,” “we,” “our,” or any variant thereof. Your profile of an up-and-coming actor should be about the actor herself. Nobody cares about the  Ivy League writer’s fellowship winner typing away about the newest innovation in at-home climate control.

The major exception is the personal essay, which it’s impossible to remove yourself from since you are the subject of the story. But not everything is a personal essay, despite almost every single writer trying to turn their story about wolves in Yellowstone or arugula farms in California into one.

I would link to examples, but honestly, go to any website like Vox or Slate or pick up any magazine like National Geographic, Vanity Fair or The Atlantic, and you’ll see this everywhere.

I think this comes largely from the typical writer’s mindset. One thing I learned when I was getting a salary to write is that the most successful writers are aggressively self-promotional. It’s inevitable, since the bulk of the job does not consist of actual writing but rather trying to sell yourself and your ideas. You have to sell yourself during the reporting, during the pitch, during the promotion. If you’re not completely convinced of your worth — of the idea that your story is the one that people should care about today, not anybody else’s — you are not going to succeed as a writer. I’m talking specifically about journalism, but this certainly applies to book authors as well.

(I should note that there are many, many writers today are good about not doing this. Ezra Klein at Vox is a good example, as are many of the people I worked with at Eater, though food writing is otherwise one of the worst culprits.)

This problem doesn’t completely come from the writer’s mentality. Editors need to do better as well. This has become the house style of the contemporary American thinkpiece and feature article, so editors typically edit to this style. But it’s a bad style!

Much of an editor’s job consists of helping the author see the whole forest after focusing so closely on the trees for so long. When a writer does a significant amount of reporting (in the case of feature articles) or, I guess, thinking (in the case of thinkpieces), they frequently want to get every single piece of information into their article. But the editor — being removed from the research and creation of the content — can see whether or not certain pieces actually add value to the piece. It can work the same way with the scourge of unnecessary first-person! When a writer is discussing Aaron Sorkin’s newest project, she doesn’t need to talk about the first time she saw an episode of The West Wing. Inserting yourself into the story rarely adds value for the reader, and frequently it is actually distracting.

Editors, do better!

As consumers, we have very little power in this world. (This is a frequent refrain of mine.) When a company or a product annoys or offends us, all we can really do is choose not to patronize that company or buy that product. It’s different with writing. I stop reading an article if the first word is a first-person pronoun. If the writer injects him- or herself into the first paragraph, there’s only a 30 percent chance I’ll continue. But doing that doesn’t change the ecosystem at all. Writing is not like other products. By the time a writer’s annoying self-regard has turned me off, I’ve already purchased the magazine or given the website my click. As a consumer there’s almost nothing I can do to affect this ecosystem.

I’ll just continue to scream into the abyss and hope an editor somewhere hears it.

Maybe It’s Not All So Bad After All

Over the weekend, I wrote a very long — at almost exactly 2,500 words, probably too long — essay about the current American political climate. Titled “The Rhetoric of Negativity,” the essay’s subhed promised to explain “why I’m supporting Hillary Clinton.” I think I achieved this! But while I do support her and expect her to be the Democratic nominee for the US presidency, I’ve learned some things about Bernie Sanders over the last few days that would make me very happy to vote for him instead.

Sanders’s rhetoric of “revolution,” of figuratively blowing up the current systems, should be very pleasing to me, but as I noted in my essay, “a drastic uprooting of the American system is not going to happen.” And since so much of the country would strongly oppose such a disruption, that’s probably a good thing. The trick, then, is figuring out how to solve the problems our country faces — like access to quality health care, especially for women; economic injustices; racial inequities in the economic and justice systems; ecological devastation — within the framework of the United States as currently constituted.

For all his talk, Sanders knows this. Some of his policies are, certainly, impracticable, but when you start to actually look at his policy papers they’re much more realistic than one might expect. So that’s good. (Though that same realism means there is almost no chance he achieves his stated aims.) My largest issues with Sanders continue to be his supporters, who are by-and-large kind of annoying to a curmudgeon like me, and his age. He would be 75 upon taking office, 79 by the end of his first term. Hillary is even too old for me, but she is still six years younger.

On the Republican side, Rubio is now done, which is probably good. He was a subtle sort of evil, as opposed to Trump’s and Cruz’s explicit lunacy. Kasich is now the most mainstream of the candidates, and surely it would be good for the Republicans and the country if, somehow, he was the nominee. He’s fairly moderate, though his decision to defund Planned Parenthood is the worst sort of right wing fear-mongering, as doing so hurts women while having a negligible effect on abortions.

Consider this an addendum — an appendix — to that monstrous essay.