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2015 in Review

My favorite product I bought last year was a dustbuster. No joke. And in a way, wasn’t the majority of 2015 about busting the dust of life? I wrote the most words, wrote the most code, took the most flights, took the most vacation and spent the most time in my hometown of my adult life. I went to Disneyland for the first time in two decades. I went to a feminist science fiction convention. I went to PAX in Seattle. I became an HBO subscriber. I went house-hunting in San Diego. I built a new computer in real life, and time machines in my writing life.

Still, time moves on. I’ve only managed to post a Best Of list two out of the past four years so let’s not get too precious about it. Here are some of my favorite things I remember from the year that was 2015:

Charlize Theron in Mad Max: Fury Road, the soundtrack of It Follows, Bill Hader and LeBron James in Trainwreck, anything and everything Amy Schumer,

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Hello I’m here

It’s been nearly a year since I discovered the Forty Days of Dating project and I’m embarrassed to say I’ve still only read up to Day 21. In my defense I kinda don’t want to get to the end too soon; it’s a fascinating experiment made even more beautiful by the presentation, and a good reminder that Life needs to be not only a series of Emersonian experiments but a series of finished projects as well.

The last 13 New Yorker stories, blurbed

No, I haven’t stopped reading them, dear reader. I just got behind. And while every week is still hit or miss there’ve been enough enjoyable moments to make me believe this a worthwhile exercise. What I don’t want this to come across as is some form of judgment on each writer (though I suppose that may be impossible), think of these more as notes on what worked and didn’t work for me personally while encountering each of these stories.

“Victory” by Yu Hua (August 26, 2013 issue) — A cheating husband always presents a potentially interesting scenario. Unfortunately I found the language (translated from the Chinese) too cold and distant to foster much empathy.

“The Colonel’s Daughter” by Robert Coover (September 2, 2013 issue) — A group of revolutionaries gathers to plot a coup. Loved the tone and atmosphere of this piece, as the characters size each other up like suspects in a game of Clue.

“The Heron” by Dorthe Nors (September 8, 2013 issue) — I actually appreciate when authors have the conviction to make their short stories short. Unfortunately this one, about a narrator’s thoughts at a park, just didn’t have enough meat on the bone to stay with me.

“By Fire” by Tahar Ben Jelloun (September 16, 2013 issue) — An interesting portrait of the life of an Arab street seller that takes a sudden political turn. For me the ending felt a little too jarring and pointed, not quite earned.

“Bad Dreams” by Tessa Hadley (September 23, 2013 issue) — A young child has a bad dream in which she finds the details of one of her favorite books have changed. The premise seemed a bit indulgent to me, but the consequences of the dream and what it foreshadows for the parents felt like the hint of a great story to be.

“The Breeze” by Joshua Ferris (September 30, 2013 issue) — A New York couple plays out several hypothetical date-night scenarios as they live through modern relationship ennui. This story frustrated me. A great premise, great setups that cause you to reflect on your own life and relationships, exceptionally confusing execution.

“I’m the Meat, You’re the Knife” by Paul Theroux (October 7, 2013 issue) — A grown man goes back to visit the bedside of a dying childhood teacher. I really appreciated the oblique angle in which this story approaches its subject matter, showing that there are never easy answers (or straightforward consequences) to childhood horrors.

“Katania” by Lara Vapnyar (October 14, 2013 issue) — Two girls growing up in Soviet Russia compare dolls and dollhouses, and by extension their lives. Vapnyar does a great job of putting you in the shoes (and shoebox dollhouses) of these girls; the ending just didn’t work for me though, and seems to completely undercut the realism that comes before it.

“The Bear Came Over the Mountain” by Alice Munro (October 21, 2013 issue) — This reprint (first published December 27, 1999) felt more like a valedictory lap for both The New Yorker and Munro immediately following her Nobel prize. It’s probably unfair to even evaluate this story along with the others shown here because it’s so damn good; within the first page it was clear that Munro simply writes on a different level.

“Samsa in Love” by Haruki Murakami (October 28, 2013 issue) — A cockroach awakens to find he is now Gregor Samsa. I count myself a huge Murakami fan, but even this (his first New Yorker story in a while) felt too Murakami-esque with not enough wrinkles to imply any kind of interesting growth. At what point should a writer be concerned about becoming a parody of himself?

“Weight Watchers” by Thomas McGuane (November 4, 2013 issue) — A construction worker helps his dad lose weight in order to reunite with his mom. This was one of my favorite stories from this group; its sheer joy of language shines through in the narrator’s colorful diction and idioms, and there’s a loopy world-weariness that seems honest and hard-won. I really need to read more from McGuane.

“Benji” by Chinelo Okparanta (November 11, 2013 issue) — A lonely rich man becomes involved with a married woman. I enjoyed the sly trickery this piece is constructed on; the existential question it ends with is food for thought as well.

“Find the Bad Guy” by Jeffrey Eugenides (November 18, 2013 issue) — A man approaches his old house and family, including his wife who has a restraining order against him. This was an incredibly fun read, with a main character who is the most unreliable of unreliable narrators but charms you anyway with his wit, hysterical voice and the exciting possibility that anything can happen in the next paragraph. I loved every minute.

Like cakes in rain

Jesus, there are lots of little funny things. I can’t even remember half of them. That’s what happens to a life, though, isn’t it. The little ornate things drizzle away, like cakes in rain, while the big blocky stuff is left to stand in for a lifetime of minutiae. Sad and beautiful.
former San Francisco Film Society Executive Director Graham Leggat

Yeah, it’s kinda like that. Best of 2012 list coming soon.

Inspiration & Errata

Recently I’ve come across some guideposts that have inspired me to refresh. These are things worth sharing, though some have been around for a while.

– Charlie Kaufman’s screenwriting lecture for BAFTA. Soapboxing to be sure, but I was surprised at how much this moved me and how well thought out some of his arguments are. A reminder to have conviction in art that is honest and different and not too self-aware.

– Michael Lewis’s profile on President Obama. The respectful yet insider-y tone of this piece had me wishing it would last forever. Favorite detail: Obama’s lifehack of removing wardrobe and food choices to avoid decision fatigue.

Startup is the New Hipster. It’s exactly like that. Actually, all of Liz Fosslien’s infographics are great and inspire me to want to make more of my own. Edward Tufte would be proud. Plus: a Murakami madlib!

– Jenny Holzer’s Truisms. I don’t agree with all of them but that’s really the point: everyone arrives at their own list, their own model of the world. Mine’s just getting started.

Mad Men Season 5 Episode 13, “The Phantom”

A promise is a promise, even if it’s several months late mmkay?

I guess naming a previous episode “Dark Shadows” wasn’t enough of a tone setter, eh? This season finale felt like something of a letdown, but mostly because the two episodes prior both featured huge turns. Overall I still prefer the struggling startup woes of Season 4 to the times-are-changing/modern marriage angle of Season 5, but kudos for making Megan more than just a secretary. Lane’s arc will always feel a little misplayed to me, but that’s the way the cookie crumbled.

This last episode’s power rankings:

10. Don Draper’s tooth — I think I know what you’re trying to do, Mr. Weiner, but why? Probably the most blatant allegory/symbolism of the season, followed closely by…

9. Adam Whitman — Yeah, we get it. Don’s haunted by nooses! Did Lane go through all this just so we could get some obvious scenes with Adam Whitmans wandering around?

8. LSD — What can’t Roger Sterling make look glamorous?

7. Marie Calvet — Great job stealing away to have your own fun, and great job calling Roger out on looking for a nanny.

6. Beth Dawes — I know I couldn’t have been the only one hoping for a (real) Beth sighting…though the shock therapy seems to instantly one-note her character.

5. Pete Campbell — Seriously, bro? Has anyone ever made having everything look less cool?

4. Megan Draper — Backstabbing your friend to get the lead in your own husband’s client’s commercial feels uncouth and beneath you, Miss. But well played.

3. Peggy Olson — Seems to be calling the shots at the new office…but still awkward at the personal moments, as witnessed by the chance encounter with Don at the movies.

2. Joan Harris — Nice to see her getting her due at the partners’ table. And channeling Lane out of nostalgia/loyalty, no less.

1. Don Draper — This season was all about the de-pantsing followed by the slow re-pantsing of our lead guy. That closing look on his face is perfect, promising everything and nothing for next season.

Next up: I’ve spent the past couple weeks getting up to speed with the slow-to-start-but-ultimately-ridiculously-amazing Breaking Bad so I can watch the final season live as it happens. Expect some form of blogging on the brilliance that is Vince Gilligan.

Mad Men Power Rankings: Season 5, Episode 9 — “Dark Shadows”

The darkest, most cutthroat episode of the season thus far, with some good reversals. Welcome back to the rat race, folks. And how crackerjack is the modern-day zeitgeist timing on this episode, managing to air on the opening weekend of Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows?

10. Henry Francis — Jeez, what does this man see in Betty? Props for somehow maintaining sanity.

9. Pete Campbell — Still fantasizing about Beth. Still hated by all the partners.

8. Bert Cooper — Another deus ex Cooper! Seriously, how much screen time is this guy contracted for?

7. Jane Sterling — Good job negotiating the new apartment, bad job negotiating Roger Sterling’s voraciousness.

6. Roger Sterling — Love to see that the old coyote’s still got some drive and ambition, even if he’s gotta leverage his wealth to stay relevant.

5. Michael Ginsberg — Gifted copywriter who knows ideas are a dime a dozen, and you gotta admire that gutsy confrontation with Don.

4. Betty Draper — Am I crazy in thinking the fat suit might actually be helping January Jones’s acting? As questionable as the Weight Watchers storyline is, it actually had me starting to feel sympathy…and then the writers remind us about that emotional childishness.

3. Don Draper — The edge is back, but why? All he needs to focus is to not have Megan in the office? Ok actually that does make a lot of sense.

2. Megan Draper — Barely outwits Betty, yet ultimately shows that the new Draper couple is an upgrade in emotional stability. Teaching Sally how to cry on command feels almost like Palpatine getting ahold of Anakin.

1. Sally Draper — Totally manipulated by Betty, totally holds her own against Megan, and nearly treated like an adult by Dad. Plus suddenly doing well in school? This character could seriously go anywhere; do we smell a Mad Women spinoff starring Sally Draper in the 70’s???

Mad Men Power Rankings: Season 5, Episode 8 – “Lady Lazarus”

Fell a week behind, but a promise is a promise. I’ll post power rankings for the most recent episode (“Dark Shadows”) within a day or two. Best thing about “Lady Lazarus”: those fantasies of a Gilmore GirlsMad Men crossover coming to fruition.

10. Betty Draper — Probably shouldn’t even be ranked but I actually start to pity her for her lack of screen time. Out of sight, out of mind.
9. Pete Campbell — It’s kind of stunning how a character can have so much fall into his lap and still come out looking like a loser.
8. Sally Draper — Probably still reeling from the event she witnessed last episode. Smart to let it simmer for a week before (I’m assuming) bringing it back to a head next episode.
7. Don Draper — Slightly more of a man in this episode for at least realizing he can’t control his wife.
6. Peggy Olson — Flubbing her lines with Don during the dessert topping pitch was somewhat predictable, but Elisabeth Moss still pulls off the frustration of being a Peggy Olson in a Megan Draper world.
5. Joan Harris — Still the true boss of the office.
4. Beth Dawes — That’s some cold shit you’re playing with Pete, missy. But good work getting back at Howard. Who knew Rory Gilmore would look so good in period?
3. Roger Sterling — The bedrock of sanity in this episode, oddly enough. But where’s my Bert Cooper??
2. Matthew Weiner — Running a Beatles song just because you can is a little show-offy, but I admire the chutzpah in taking another left turn with the new Drapers (see #1). And I do like the looming threat of Don becoming out of touch with the zeitgeist he butters his bread with.
1. Megan Draper — Still overpowered as a character, but I’m definitely curious to see what she does next. Will her departure from the office create more or less time for Betty? And do we care?