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2019 Retrospective

After giving up on my pointless-feeling year-end music posts a few years ago, I wrote a more general retrospective last year and it turned out to be a worthwhile endeavor. So I’m gonna do it again. What’s the most interesting stuff that happened in my life in 2019?

About Faces

The cover to my album 'About Faces.' It's a circular image of an old, somewhat faded tattoo of the classic comedy/tragedy theater masks, on a background consisting of three bands of somewhat watery-looking textured color in a gradient from teal to deep blue.

I gotta say the most significant event of my life in 2019, in terms of my personal sense of satisfaction and accomplishment, was releasing a full-length album that I wrote and recorded almost entirely on my own (with some phenomenal drumming from my brother on a couple tracks). About Faces was the result of several years’ worth of intermittent work and about twenty-five takes per track per fifteen seconds of audio. I listen to a lot of music and so I developed the common enthusiast/creator’s problem of having my musical taste develop a lot faster than my abilities. So it took me a very long time to be able to write any songs I thought were decent, but I like everything on here. There’s a lot of very true and personal stuff in the lyrics, but I also think the songs are good and even have a few interesting or novel musical ideas. It seems to have taken a lot out of me to finish it, and I haven’t really done much music since I did, but I think I will eventually recover. In the meantime, I’m really proud of About Faces.

Therapy

In my 2018 retrospective I mentioned that I wanted to start therapy in 2019. Well, I did. It went… okay. I think there was some value in carving out some time and space to think and talk about my emotions to an almost entirely non-judgmental audience. But it never really clicked for me; I didn’t look forward to my therapy sessions or ever really find them to be cathartic or especially effective relief for any distress I was feeling. I think perhaps it just wasn’t an especially good fit — my therapist didn’t do anything offensive or otherwise Bad but I didn’t especially like him and he wasn’t very good at drawing me out. It was a decent My First Therapy experience but if I try again in the future, I’d like to specifically look for someone who will dig a little deeper into my issues and give me more concrete tools than general-purpose mindfulness for when my emotions feel overpowering or unmanageable. In the meantime, I’m going to try to make myself do more regular journaling as a substitute for the neutral space for venting that therapy did give me.

Wearing Skirts

I remember thinking, over a decade ago, maybe in college, that I’d wear a skirt if it weren’t a whole thing. I liked the look of long skirts on women in a surprisingly-nonsexual-for-my-age way, a “that looks comfy but also elegant” kind of way. My (male) roommate occasionally wore a skirt and I thought it looked good on him too. But actually wearing one myself seemed too much like putting myself out there, like inviting people to make fun of me. It was basically unthinkable. In 2019, though, after thinking more about gender than in any previous year of my life, I did think about wearing a skirt again, and I realized: it was 2019! Lots had changed since collegeCover of the mixtape JEFFERY, by Young Thug. Thug is wearing a white dress with a huge ruffly periwinkle skirt. For example, this album cover by rapper Young Thug. For a long time, popular rap didn’t really seem to brook a lot of deviation from archetypal gender norms, correct me if I’m wrong please. At some point when I wasn’t paying attention, it seems that ambiguous gender presentation went somewhat mainstream.

, not least that if I choose to wear a skirt I can do so in the privacy of my own home, where no one can see or have opinions about it.

Once I had this idea, I had to buy a skirt. It was easy to justify in practical terms: the weather was getting colder, and what better to use as an additional layer on my legs?There may have been other answers to this question but I would not have cared to hear them.

I ordered a big fleece skirt off Etsy, from France, and it took about six weeks to arrive.

I loved it immediately, and still do: it’s as warm and comfortable and elegant and dare I say pretty as I hoped, and probably the first time I have dared to think of myself as feeling “pretty.”It’s worth mentioning I have no illusions that I’m being particularly daring in referring to myself this way. Yet again, a rapper beat me to the punch, this time A$AP Rocky with his tendency to refer to himself as “pretty motherfucker.”

I have worn it in the presence of other people — not counting my partner, who I knew with absolute certainty would never tease me about it — three times, and I remember them distinctly despite their being actually very uneventful. The first was in the presence of my mom and brother, but not my uncle and aunt, when I stayed with my mom around Thanksgiving. The second was on a brief walk with my partner around the neighborhood in the cold after dark. The most recent was at karaoke, with some people I met on a Facebook group for fans of the Achewood webcomic.An unofficial fourth time was in a Goodwill, where I bought two more skirts. I didn’t wear them in front of anyone, but I looked someone in the face and paid money for them. It was considerably more nerve-wracking than the karaoke, to be honest.

My internal calculations before each of those ventures, regarding who would be likely to give me a hard time about this extremely mild tweaking of my gender presentation, really gave me a new appreciation for the bravery of queer and gender nonconforming people.

Perhaps the strangest thing about all this, though, comes when I try to think about what it, like, means. I went a long time without really questioning or messing with my gender presentation, and then in 2019 I spent a bunch of time on Mastodon, where a reasonable default assumption is that everyone is transgender, and those who aren’t are probably still queer. So it seems natural and even unavoidable to ask: what does it mean that I like wearing long skirts and how pretty they make me feel? Am I queer? Am I a cross-dresser? Am I actually a girl? So much of gender nonconformance seems to go along with other types of queerness that it’s hard not to feel like there’s some deeper truth to be gleaned about myself from my enjoying this small subversion. But I’ve thought about these questions enough to be quite sure the answer to all of them is no.“Cross-dresser” might be arguable, but I don’t feel interested in wearing any other types of women’s clothing, so it’s not an identity I’m comfortable claiming.

I’m still just a straight man, just one who’s ambivalent enough about mainstream masculinity to tweak it a bit in the interest of feeling pretty and, let’s not forget, quite warm.

The Cat Situation

Two cats sitting adjacent to each other. One is an adult grey tuxedo looking nonplussed at the camera. The other is a white and brown tabby who looks like a gangly almost-kitten.

In 2018, we had a total cat turnover: we lost our two cats Fiona and Gandalf in the space of six months and went into 2019 with just one cat, Halloumi, a 9-month-old adolescent kitten we’d gotten near the end of 2018 to replace Fiona and keep Gandalf from being an only cat in what we didn’t yet know would turn out to be the last few months of his life. When Gandalf died, we were left with Halloumi as an only kitten, an even less tenable situation. So we started seeking out a new friend for Halloumi almost immediately, even as the throes of grief were still subsiding.

A Post-Gandalf World

Halloumi’d been easy to find and adopt. My partner went on a website for a nearby(ish) shelter and noticed he (then named Freddie) was impossibly cute. We visited the shelter and he was still there. When we went into the room where he was, he was sleeping; we woke him up, and he immediately climbed into my partner’s lap to purr loudly and soak up affection and generally make an incontrovertibly convincing case for himself as a good cat to adopt. The jury’s decision was unanimous. Halloumi was amazingly well-behaved in the almost hour-long car ride home, which we took to be a good sign.

A smallish black tuxedo cat completely stretched out on a red couch and extending a big thumby paw toward the camera.

Our efforts to find a companion for Halloumi in a post-Gandalf world went much less smoothly in comparison. We visited a total of five shelters — including the one where we found Halloumi — without being won over by anyone, and by the last one we were feeling pretty ragged. At the fifth shelter, we had to wait for over an hour to visit personally with the cats we’d come to see, and when we did so, none of them were particularly friendly or nice. But there was one more guy we noticed when we were scoping out the main area and when we visited with him, we realized he had thumbs! Franklin, as he was then called, was a polydactyl cat and, more importantly, turned out to be affable and inquisitive when we visited with him. We were worn out, not sure what shelters in the area we had left to visit, aware that any decision we made would be based on limited information, and generally vulnerable to a good-enough choice. Not sure if we were making a mistake, we took Franklin home; after our previous cats Einstein, Fiona and Gandalf (not in that order), we liked the continuity of having a pair of cats with H names, so as Freddie became Halloumi, Franklin became Hoisin. (Also I was and still am really into food names for cats.)

Two cats snoozing in close proximity to each other. The one in front has a shaved patch on his front right leg.

This story has a happy ending, but after we brought Hoisin home, he started having problems almost immediately. Shortly after his mandated cat-introduction one-room-quarantine time was over, we were playing with him and he started favoring his left forelimb. We took him to the vet and it turned out that a scab on his right leg that he’d had at the shelter was actually infected. So we had to return him to quarantine and put him in a cone and apply a damp poultice to his open wound twice a day to keep it from getting re-infected. Finally, in the midst of all this, and during one of Seattle’s biggest snowstorms in years — one of those ones that basically incapacitates the entire city for days — the re-quarantined, open-wound-sporting cat rather spontaneously vomited up a four inch long tapeworm, and no vets were open to do anything about it. A tapeworm is not a life-threatening concern, but it put us further on edge during an already stressful time. This was on top of the usual and expected juggle of having to entertain two cats who had already met each other and now desperately wanted to interact but couldn’t.

Two cats, a black tuxedo and a white and brown tabby, sleeping in full cuddle position. The tuxedo's head is on the tabby's forelimb.

Aside from that it dragged on for a month that seemed much longer, there’s not much more to say about Hoisin’s convalescence and second quarantine: mercifully, he recovered without incident; even more mercifully, he and Halloumi got along immediately and swimmingly when that quarantine ended. I’m happy to report that our life is now basically a blissful stream of opportunities to take pictures like the one you see here.

Media and Such

Music

I still don’t listen to as much new music as in the heyday of my year-end top 10s, but I did still manage to find time for some stuff I liked a lot. In no order except alphabetically by artist, I’d say I had three big favorites.

I liked the power pop of Charly Bliss’s first album Guppy a lot, but 2019’s Young Enough really seemed like a leveling up. Eva Hendricks’s lyrics on Guppy were personal but often a little too oblique to get their hooks into me the way the music did so easily. Young Enough is less guarded and, despite the addition of synths that lay a sparkle over the often shockingly dark lyrics, more cohesive. It’s still as catchy as Guppy ever was, but it aims higher and hits the mark far more often than not. Its biggest stumble is also its least daring moment: “Camera” feels a bit underbaked and out of place, and even the minute-long “Fighting in the Dark” is riskier, more complete, and more successful. Everything else on here whips though. The title track in particular is a triumph.

Jamila Woods’s LEGACY! LEGACY! was relatively new for me: closer to soul and R&B than anything I’ve really gotten into before, it took a little while to sink in. But I’m glad I didn’t let myself bounce off the unfamiliar (to me) melodic conventions, because this is an outstanding album. I mentioned it in my post about James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, which I read largely because of the track “BALDWIN”: one of the many glorious things about LEGACY! LEGACY! is the way it draws you into curiosity about the figures its 12 tracks pay tribute to. Its lyrics are by turns boastful (“GIOVANNI”), defiant (“SONIA”), and seething (“BASQUIAT”), and always thoughtful and empowering. But there are plenty of melodic hooks and delightful turns of phrase to keep you coming back enough to appreciate those allusions and themes.

The Mountain Goats’ “no guitars, no overdubs” Rhodes-keyboard heavy previous album Goths was decent but left me kind of cold, no pun intended, but I think that middlingly successful experiment paid off in their new In League With Dragons. The whole thing is at least pretty good, and the band is probably the lushest-sounding it’s ever been, but the highlights all come after the stark and kind of slight “Going Invisible 2.” In that song’s chorus, John Darnielle promises “I’m gonna burn it all down today” — whether he’s referring to the traditional Mountain Goats sound, to which the album up to that point has hewed fairly closely, is unclear — and what follows are four strange and shockingly successful genre exercises. “Waylon Jennings Live!” and “An Antidote for Strychnine” are my two favorite songs on the album despite sounding almost nothing like earlier Mountain Goats.

A handful of other 2019 albums I really enjoyed: Brittany Howard’s Jaime, Buke and Gase’s Scholars, Carly Rae Jepsen’s Dedicated, Laura Stevenson’s The Big Freeze, and Mount Eerie and Julie Doiron’s Lost Wisdom, Pt. 2.

Other Stuff

In my last yearly retrospective I mentioned playing the extremely well-designed but amateurish-looking roguelike deck builder Dream Quest; in 2019 I played Slay the Spire, a more polished and professional game in the same exact genre. It was also excellent. I stopped playing pretty much right after I’d beaten the game with each of the three available characters, dipping only briefly into the “ascension” challenges; it’s impressive that the game, despite being very tough even without them, still has twenty increasingly difficult tiers of mastery to it, but I did not have the time or patience to dig into them.

I mostly trod waterIs this the past tense of “tread water?”

in my TV watching in 2019 as well. I caught up on season 3 of The Good Place (the worst so far, but still very good), and the Steven Universe finale and movie (generally up to the show’s high standards but wrapped up a bit too tidily), but I think the star of the year was the second half of She-Ra and the Princesses of Power’s fourth season. It felt like a game changer in the same way “Mirror Gem” / “Ocean Gem” did for Steven Universe, and I’m excited to see where the show goes from here.

My most interesting reading in 2019 is chronicled in my Seattle Public Library Book Bingo posts:

  1. Hybrid Child
  2. The Beatrix Gates
  3. My Age of Anxiety
  4. Sisters
  5. No One Will See Me Cry
  6. The Fire Next Time

Finally, 2019 is the year I started listening to those good good boys the McElroy brothers and their family of fine podcast products (My Brother, My Brother and Me and The Adventure Zone, so far), via the time honored tradition of having my friend play an episode of MBMBaM during a car ride. I’ve since listened to the first three arcs of TAZ and about a hundred fifty eps of MBMBaM, which has become my go-to tool for cheering up and/or getting out of my own head.

OK I’m Done

Last year I concluded with “Here’s to 2019 not being a total shitshow.” Now we’re already 3 months into 2020, and like: who am I kidding? Non-shitshows are clearly just not on the table anymore. But here’s to me writing a 2020 retrospective before March of 2021.

Contact me? My email is my first initial and last name, which you can deduce from this website's URL, at gmail.com. I'm also on Mastodon as @valrus@icosahedron.website.

Images in this post are shown using a custom version of bytebox modified to be even smaller.