Thoughts on the New Year: 2016 Edition

This is the fifth edition of my annual Thoughts on the New Year essay. I wrote it over three sessions, starting in the lobby of a Midas on New Year’s Eve and completing it the morning of New Year’s Day  at a crowded breakfast table. It feels awfully scattershot to me, but that’s how my brain works. See previous editions of this essay here.

Could any New Year’s Eve feel more unexpected? Sure, this is the inevitable end of any year: they all must end 365 or 366 days after they begin. But usually I’m at least aware that the year is ending for a couple weeks before it actually does. 2015 was so full, from beginning to end, that I haven’t felt any natural slowdown of this year or the attendant excitement for the coming one. That’s not a bad thing — tonight will be a fantastic night spent with friends and family– but it just feels different.

For the last several years, New Year’s — and all the hope and expectation that comes with it — has led me to think very deeply and feel very intensely about the coming year. That’s resulted in four consecutive annual editions of this essay. (Five in a row, whoa!) While writing this essay has become an important part of my New Year tradition, I didn’t start thinking about this year’s essay until this afternoon

As 2014 turned into 2015,  I committed myself to digging in, focusing, being more consistent, and chugging along like a tugboat captain. It was the Year of Stability. But it was still a year I was  excited about. And it didn’t disappoint: I followed up running a marathon in 2014 with running two more, and finishing the second under three hours. (Something achieved by only 2 1/2 percent of everyone who attempts a marathon — itself less than two percent of the population.) After nearly two years at a very good job I got a new one, and was able to quit my second job. Oh, and I got married.

All of those feats are indicators of stability. Marriage is stability. Long distance running is itself an endeavor of persistence, and it’s an activity I began in earnest in 2013 and am continuing into next year. That’s stability. And sure, I changed jobs, but I did so in a move that will hopefully allow me professional stability in a way I’ve never had..

So while chugging along I did some really great things, but it was stable. This was the first year since I was in high school in which I didn’t move. The apartment in which my wife, my cat, and I live isn’t great — I decided yesterday that it’s the third- or fourth-worst of the 12 or more I’ve lived in as an adult — and I don’t particularly like the area where we live. I feel, occasionally, that I’m performing well below my ambitions. But committing to my plan, working hard, and digging in was my goal for this past year. In addition to my very real and tangible and exciting successes, achieving that more passive goal is its own victory. I end 2015 feeling very good about the year.

The end of 2015 snuck up on me. Here we are, but when did we get here? When did all this time pass? This year has been busy, right up to the last few hours. (It’s so busy that I began this essay in the lobby of a Midas, watching the second Hangover movie while getting an oil change.) Suddenly tomorrow is next year and I’ve hardly thought about it at all.

Continue reading “Thoughts on the New Year: 2016 Edition”

On Being a Tugboat Captain

Or, Thoughts on the New Year, 2015 Edition

This is the fourth year in a row I’ve used Tumblr to write an essay for the new year. Read previous year’s musings here.

This is something I do. Every year I write the same essay, looking back on the past year, looking forward to the next, getting deep-and-thought-y, drinking too much coffee, listening to music, feeling big emotions. I still firmly believe that New Year’s is sort of a stupid holiday — in that we put too much stock in it, demanding big things when, at most, it’s just the worst of the drinking holidays. And New Year’s resolutions are gimmicky and too easy to forget about when January becomes February. Still, as I wrote at the end of 2011, there is value in marking the arrival of a new year.

Today’s feelings are muted. 2014 was fine — it was full of a number of personal victories, but still it feels like sort of a throwaway year. Perhaps that will change with time. I did, after all, start this past year feeling just about as low as a person can get. As I wrote last New Year’s, I was completely unsettled, floundering in my work and my life, feeling like everything was basically the worst. I didn’t like myself and had trouble showing those around me that I loved them. In 2014 I got back to equilibrium, which (in light of how I ended 2013) is itself a pretty big victory.

Instead of making resolutions, I make big declarations. 2010 was The Year of the Alex, 2011 was The Year of Good Decisions, 2012 was The Year of Good Work, 2013 was The Year of Getting Right (ha!), 2014 was The Year of Good Returns. I think that title for this past year was pretty accurate.

There was a point, in mid-April, when I was getting pretty down about my attempts to get out of restaurants and back into my career*. I wanted to move from online publishing to doing digital things in traditional book publishing. I was applying for jobs, never hearing anything back, and I felt awful. But an opportunity arose that, through much effort and difficulty, could lead to something good. When faced with the option of re-enrolling in community college to take an internship, which would require me to work seven days a week (commuting into the city for two of them), I found myself in the parking lot of Napa Valley College saying unto myself: “Just do the damn thing.” I did the damn thing, got the internship, got a job, kept working seven days a week across two jobs, moved to Walnut Creek, got myself down to just six days a week in two jobs, and am truly moving forward. Lots of work, but good returns.

Here, an inexhaustive (and non-chronological) list of my victories from the past year. I did these damn things:

  • Ran my first half-marathon in Oakland in March
  • Ran my second and third half-marathons in San Francisco and Walnut Creek
  • Ran my first full marathon in my hometown of Baltimore, coming in 73rd place overall
  • Saw my family in Baltimore twice this fall, both helping satisfy (but also feeding) my growing homesickness
  • Started a new job back on my career track, at a fun little office doing and learning interesting things
  • Started a new restaurant job at a restaurant that, for the first time in a very, very long time, I truly enjoy
  • Moved back into our own apartment after a year with the fiancee’s parents

This next year will be huge, too. I’m getting married in June, and that large event — and the smaller events associated with the big one — will define this coming year in a very real (and very great!) way. But somehow I have this feeling that by the end of this year, I won’t be in all that different of a place. I’ll be married, sure (yay!), but I plan on still being in both of my current jobs — hopefully being more successful in both, but still there — and in my current apartment. But that stability, that unrelenting forward momentum pushing ever slowly and consistently like a tugboat pushing a barge upriver, is its own victory. I’ve never had stability in my adult life. I crave it, and having it will contribute to further growth, further victories, and future adventures.

This, then, is the Year of Stability. It’s the year of moving forward with maturity and consistency and dedication. It’s the year of chugging along like a tugboat.

*Funny. I just re-read last year’s essay and my pessimism about getting out of restaurants is so apparent. I didn’t get out of restaurant work, but I got back into my career, and that’s a victory.

Another Year, Same Essay: Thoughts on the New Year for 2014

This year’s Thoughts on the New Year essay is very long and personal. The tl;dr is that the last couple of years have been rough financially and professionally but this year will be better. Also I got engaged this year and have a great little family with my fiancee and my cat and that pretty much makes 2013 a success.

There is a moment every morning — usually when I’m elbow deep in our fryer cleaning it out with a hose and heavy-duty degreaser, or maybe when I’m getting the three-sink system setup for that day’s service — that I start to question most every decision I’ve ever made. From high school through the present day, I can see a pattern of decision-making that has led me farther and farther away from my passions and talents, simultaneously taking me deeper and deeper in debt. I’ve gone from passionate about life and writing and music and sports, independent financially and flourishing mentally, to having to rely heavily on my and my fiancee’s families’ social and financial capital in a way that I never ever wanted to have to.

I have no idea how to get out of the hole that I’m in, but I do know that cleaning the fryer isn’t paying the bills and any prospect I have right now will take me even farther away from that professional mountain I’m trying to climb. All of this and more goes through my head every day before 11 a.m.

At the end of 2011, I wrote the first of my now-annual New Year’s essays, which I doubt anyone reads but which feel are a little more honest or accountable than if I just wrote them privately. I don’t make resolutions but I try to establish themes for the coming year, which I started before these essays: 2010 was the Year of the Alex, 2011 was the Year of Good Decisions (ha!), 2012 was the Year of Good Work, and this past year, as stressors really started wearing on me, was the Year of Getting Right.

Did I Get Right this past year? Oh hell no. but maybe it’s the coffee, maybe it’s the good music, maybe it’s knowing that no matter what I’ve got a support system that will keep me off the streets — whatever it is, for some reason I feel oddly hopeful about 2014. This is going to be a Year of Good Returns.

First, a little more about this past year: 2013 wasn’t all bad. I got engaged, and that’s more awesome than I could ever say. As things got really bad for us in New York and it became clear we needed a change (and also needed to move in with one or the other set of parents), we moved across the country. That was an extraordinary drive and a great American experience. As sad as I am to have left New Orleans, and as homesick as I get these days for my childhood/youth/early adulthood in Baltimore, Northern California is spectacular, and we’re lucky to be here. Through fall I worked an incredible harvest job — best job I’ve ever had, only it was so short — where I just drove around to different parts of wine country and worked hard, and I’ve never felt so good. And I love my fiancee’s family, so it’s nice being close to them, even if sometimes I really miss having my own space.

After harvest has been difficult, but it wasn’t all bad. There’s plenty to build on for this coming year.

So, what do I mean by the Year of Good Returns? One sense is the more obvious one: By putting good work in (hello 2012!) I expect to get good returns out. In this sense it’s a way of building on this past year’s attempt at recalibration, but with more of a focus on working hard to get there, and expecting good things to come out of it.

But in another sense, this is a way of calling for a return to the parts of my past that I’m so proud of. Writing, music, sports: my life used to revolve around these things, and I was on the verge of becoming really good at all of the above before getting completely lost.

These New Year’s essays always feature music in one way or another. In 2012 it was the Muppets’ Rainbow Connection, last year it was the Spanish version of You’ve Got a Friend in Me from Toy Story 3. Notably, this year as I write this I can’t stop listening to Alexi Murdoch’s Orange Sky, a song that I intimately associate with senior year of high school, but which also features prominently in that great Maya Rudolph movie Away We Go. (“Are we fuckups,” Rudolph’s character asks her boyfriend John Krasinski. “We’re not fuck-ups,” he responds. “I think we’re fuck-ups,” she decides. I think about this movie all the time.)

I want to return to the things I used to be so good at, and stop being a whole lot of unfulfilled raw potential and started doing something. Unlike most years, I’m making some tangible, measurable goals to achieve this:

  • Run two half-marathons and one full marathon
  • Practice guitar regularly, and perform live at least once by the end of the year
  • Brush up on my Chicago Manual of Style and APA citation, and begin freelance copy-editing academic papers
  • Launch my Northern California culture blog, “Monarch y Mariano,” by March
  • Begin work on super-secret creative endeavor

I will do these things, and I will feel better about myself, and I will love myself and be better able to show my love for those around me. And even if I’m still working in a restaurant, these will be all the good returns I need.

Happy 2013 to all.

Thoughts on the New Year, 2013 Version

“New year, new you,” and all that noise. That’s what today-into-tomorrow is all about, yes? Celebrate the passing of one year, make hopeful claims about the one to come, and kiss somebody at midnight. Champagne should be involved. While New Year’s as a holiday, as an event, is not really my thing — as I wrote at length exactly one year ago today — those are all things I enjoy. So New Year’s Resolutions are not my thang, but there is value in observing today and tomorrow as a holiday, albeit a minor one. It’s still important to mark the passing of time and recalibrate.

And that, really, is what this new year is about for me. Recalibration.

If the marketing materials say that Christmas is “the most wonderful time of the year,” New Year’s is, or can be, the most hopeful time of the year. Tonight is always a party, sure, but the act of looking ahead and thinking about ways to improve your own life is such a hopeful process. ‘Cause all of life’s a celebration, ya dig? And this is the annual period of figuring out how to make that celebration better for yourself and the people around you. Life, ladies and gentlemen. Life.

In my fun, half-serious, gimmicky way, I’ve once again declared this year to be the Year of Something. In 2010, I observed the Year of the Alex, because I had spent the preceding years making decisions for awful, heteronymous reasons and was unhappy about that, and so wanted to make more decisions for myself. (The Year of the Alex was also the year I started going by Alexander more, so that’s a sign that all of this should be taken with a grain of salt.) 2011 was the Year of Good Decisions, a natural progression from the decision-making-oriented year before. This past year, then, has been the Year of Good Work, when I sought to work — really fucking hard — at doing new and good things. In the course of that year, I’ve joined a couple awesome guys in doing ambitious and unpaid sports writing, and I’ve moved 1300 miles from New Orleans to New York City to join my employer of well over a year in a full-time capacity.

I’ve not always worked hard, but I’ve worked well and so I’m okay with that. The work that I did was frequently Good. But I also lost some of the good-decisions focus I had worked on the previous two years, and in general I committed the single greatest sin a person can commit: I took myself too seriously. I was frequently angry, often lacking in confidence, regularly spiteful, dedicated, ambitious, unhappy.

That’s why it’s time to recalibrate. That’s why 2013 is the Year of Getting Right.

Getting Right in the mind, for one. Recalibrating with those I love — I now live much closer to any of my family than I have in about five years and it’s time to remind everyone that I love them. The mind also houses one’s professional capacities, of course, and I want to rededicate myself to the good work I started last year, but have more fun and more confidence in it. I never intended to be a journalist but that’s what I’ve become, and this year is the time to dedicate myself to that and get really fucking good at it. But be more playful in it, too. And be less anxious and more awesome and just do good things, and do them right.

Also part of Getting Right is getting back to the things I enjoy the most. I’ve written almost no fiction or theater since a certain event in 2008, and that’s just not okay. It’s not part of being Right.

Getting Right in the body, as well. After starting to smoke off and on when I was 19, I quit again before Christmas. When the clock strikes midnight and 2012 becomes 2013, I will have gone 18 days without a cigarette. I’m no longer playing sports, but I want to stay fit — even while smoking, at the height of my addiction I was only having 5 a day, tops, and I was still exercising sometimes. I want to more fit than I ever have been. And years of sports and physical activity and not having health insurance and living hard have done a toll on my (still young) body, so it’s time to get to a dentist and a general practitioner and a sports medicine place and maybe even an orthopedic surgeon. I could probably stand to drink less, as well.

And get right in spirit. This is the big one. Do the right things for the right reasons and just Get Right. Be more open and more loving and more honest and more careful and more thoughtful and more selfless and more self-effacing.

If this all seems so serious, don’t worry, it’s not. It’s about living life and loving myself and the people around me and doing the things I’m supposed to, and having fun with it. Happy 2013 to all.

***

And now, just in case that was too damn serious, here’s the Gypsy Kings’ version of You’ve Got a Friend in Me from Toy Story 3, because I don’t think I watched a movie that good in 2012:

Thoughts on the New Year

I should note that I woke up at 2AM this morning and haven’t yet gotten any sleep. This is not going to be the most articulate or logically consistent essay I’ve ever written, but dammit I’ve got big feelings and I want to express them.

New Year’s as a holiday is not really my thing. I’ve never truly celebrated a New Year’s Eve and actually enjoyed it. It’s always seemed like a pretty arbitrary excuse for serious drinking. And while I’m a big fan of serious drinking, New Year’s has never seemed worth being anything other than another night out. Of all the drinking holidays—Halloween, Mardi Gras, Independence Day—New Year’s Eve is my least favorite. I’m not a fan of New Year’s Resolutions—I think they’re gimmicky and rarely followed through upon.

But for the day job, I conducted a survey of friends and associates about their food and dining experiences from the last year, finishing with a question that asked them to make predictions for the year ahead. While many of the responses to this were goofy, they were all generally positive, hopeful. Going through these responses, when combined with a pretty serious lack of a sleep, some good coffee and even better music, made me think for the first time that there’s actually some value in marking the arrival of a new year.

Before I get too far, I should confess that,  for the last two years, I’ve declared each to be the year of something. 2010 was the Year of the Alex, in which I was trying to be more assertive and make more autonomous decisions based on my own needs, desires and feelings; and 2011 was the Year of Good Decisions, in which, basically, I was trying to do the same. This system, while it’s kind of fun and whimsical, is either only a half step above or even a half step below regular resolutions. It’s a gimmick, and the similarity of my goals for both 2010 and 2011 suggests I did a shit job of actually following through. It was fun to say, but I wasn’t really productively marking the coming of a new year. I was just riffing on regular resolutions in an insincere way.

Yet, as I said, I’m starting to think that there’s real value in taking a moment at the end of the year, really stopping, and looking back at the year that was in an effort to look towards the year that will be. While the year ahead can be pretty scary—have I mentioned that in the Year of Good Decisions I actually made some pretty terrible ones, and am starting 2012 in pretty serious debt?—the act of physically, intellectually stopping to look ahead is an essentially hopeful one. It reminds me, honestly, of everybody stopping all at once to sing the chorus of Rainbow Connection.

(Oh. Right. When I said earlier that I was listening to good music while forming these thoughts, I was actually listening to the Muppets soundtrack.)

Seriously, though, that’s probably the most hopeful song in the history of music, with only slight hyperbole there. To wit:

Rainbows are visions, but only illusions,
and rainbows have nothing to hide.
So we’ve been told and some choose to believe it.
I know they’re wrong, wait and see.
Someday we’ll find it, the rainbow connection.
The lovers, the dreamers and me

Right? Feels pretty effing good. But the music’s not all that uplifting. It’s kinda mournful and makes me feel like, man, there’s something good out there and fuck if I can’t find it. “What’s so amazing that keeps us stargazing?” No idea, but dammit I’m gonna keep looking. And then there’s the key change to a major and the song accuses the listener of having been half asleep and of hearing voices:

Is this the sweet sound that called the young sailors?
The voice might be one and the same.
I’ve heard it too many times to ignore it.
It’s something that I’m supposed to be.
Someday we’ll find it, the rainbow connection.
The lovers, the dreamers and me.

That’s how the new year makes me feel. But New Year’s as a holiday is still stupid.

Oh, and 2012? It’s the Year of Good Work.

-AJH