When the esteemed Wm. Steven Humphrey, editor-in-chief of the Portland Mercury, first asked me if I wanted to write an opinion piece looking back on my 2020 experiences, I balked. This year was traumatic yet dull in so many general and specific ways that I didn’t know where to start, and I didn’t have anything to say that hadn’t already been said a million times by pundits and social media philosophers.
So I decided to circumvent that challenge by focusing instead on what sparked joy.
Because so much of 2020 was spent inside my house and inside my own head, the things that got me through 2020 are just that: things. Physical objects, songs, board games, TV shows, the odd luxury candle. These are the things I’ll want to remember from 2020. The rest of it can go straight to hell, in my candid opinion.
“Anthems” by Charli XCX
I used to be a good writer. I used to keep an overflowing list of things I wanted to write about, and take delight in honing first drafts into tighter, leaner turns of phrases. I even used to be able to complete the rule of threes.
But then the novel coronavirus pandemic hit, and my creativity went down the toilet like so many rolls of dearly sought-after toilet paper. I feel like a whiny little baby even bringing this up, in a year of Dickensian suffering and Machiavellian leadership, but 2020 was like a giant ice cream scooper, taking a generous helping right out of the center of my mind. Every fleeting idea that my pandemic brain managed to generate was flighty and effervescent, fizzling out and leaving my mind a flat, abysmal can of seltzer.
I know I’m far from alone in this. Which is why the few culturally creative projects that were exclusively envisioned and executed this year have felt so remarkable. And no other such project has been more meaningful to me than the song “Anthems” by pop artist Charli XCX.
Written and recorded during the early months of quarantine and released on the record How I’m Feeling Now in May, “Anthems” was the noisy, pace-setting track to many a rage-fueled walk around my neighborhood. It perfectly encapsulates the angsty, electric boredom of spring and summer 2020, and a few repeat listens feels cathartic—Charli is ranting over screeching beats so I don’t have to. I don’t know how often I’ll be able to listen to it after the pandemic ends, but if one song saved my life this year, it was “Anthems.”
I bought this cute little Marimekko mug in Astoria in September, during what was supposed to be a week-long vacation in an adorable tiny house with my wife. That vacation got cut in half because our home was in the Clackamas County wildfire evacuation warning zone. For months, I’d pinned all my pent-up hopes of a slice of normal, relaxing life on that one week, and returning home early to an apocalyptic Portland, where even taking the trash out felt like an emergency mission, hit like a brutal last straw. (Again, I feel like such a baby to complain about only getting half a week of vacation when a lot of people lost their homes in the fires, but I also know that it is okay and healthy to be sad about losing things!)
Anyway—the mug. There’s not much to it except that it has bright, happy colors, and it’s the perfect size and shape for my hand, and every morning I drink coffee out of it feels maybe five percent lighter. What more could you want from a mug?
The Alegria burrito
I’m a big fan of every business at Portland Mercado, but this year I became especially enamored with the Alegria burrito at Fernando’s Alegria. It’s got the basics of any good breakfast burrito (and by “breakfast” I mean “breakfast, lunch, dinner, and midnight snack”): scrambled eggs, guacamole, a hearty tortilla. The special ingredient here is grilled nopalitos, which impart a mild briny flavor that you’ll want to keep coming back for. Some days in this pandemic, there isn’t a ton to look forward to beyond your next tasty meal, and this one has never disappointed.
Boy Smells’ June’s candle
“Bergamot, cassis, anise, coriander, daffodil and tonka” is how this intoxicating, musty-in-a-good-way scented candle is defined on the label, and I’m not going to try to describe it more aptly than that. This candle’s scent fills any room you light it in within 15 minutes, and keeping it lit at my home desk was a tiny kindness I showed myself during days when working from home felt particularly rough. I recommend it—and, more generally, I recommend any candle, incense, etc. that soothes you, as we too often fail to meet our scent needs.
I think I’ve consumed, on average, three 12-packs of flavored seltzer a week since the pandemic started. I quickly learned that the flavors I thought would taste disgusting turned out to be my favorite—when you’re working with a zero-calorie soft drink, you need some bold, confusing flavor combos to break through the fizz. Here are my three, highly controversial favorite seltzers of 2021:
• La Croix’s coconut cola: I have no idea who else is buying this, but as a coconut head, I’m so grateful they’re making it. (The plain coconut La Croix flavor is also good.)
• Polar’s cranberry lime: Double acid, aggressive carbonation, and absolutely no relief for your tongue. A rush!
• Polar’s orange vanilla: No, it doesn’t taste like an orange creamsicle. It tastes like a zero-calorie fizzy water with the essence of orange and vanilla pumped into it through God only knows what process. But that’s why I like it.
I finally got into houseplants!
Turns out that everything every millennial-oriented publication has been trying to tell me for the last five years was true: Houseplants are fun and satisfying and not terribly expensive! I’m now anticipating houseplants to fall sharply out of fashion in 2021, but I’ve made peace with that.
Also, please don’t send me your houseplant tips—some hobbies are fun to master, and others are fun just to partake in obliviously.
Making ice cream
Tired: The multi-step, highly involved process of making sourdough bread.
Wired: The multi-step, highly involved process of making ice cream.
Sorry, but if I’m gonna lose myself in a therapeutic kitchen journey that eats up an entire day, I want ice cream at the end of it, not bread! I recommend the Salt & Straw ice cream cookbook, and especially the Arbequina Olive Oil recipe.
This two-person strategy board game revolves around trying to arrange the right number of colorful, aesthetically pleasing tiles in the right order, and screwing over your opponent’s ability to do the same. It’s just the right difficulty level—stimulating but not intimidating—and wonderfully tactile. And, unlike Monopoly, it doesn’t take 20 minutes to set up and put away!
Real Housewives, Sister Wives, and Dateline
I know a lot of people used the pandemic as an opportunity to binge-watch The Sopranos or explore the Criterion Collection or whatever, but I did not have it in me to watch anything that required more than half of my attention to appreciate. Enter formulaic reality shows and problematic true crime TV—here are a few special shoutouts:
• Keith Morrison’s campy, conspiratorial narration on Dateline.
• The way every Dateline episode is set in a small town, and yet every episode includes a talking head saying “No one thought it could happen here!”
• The dinner party from hell in season one of the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.
• The latest installment in the Real Housewives franchise, set in Salt Lake City—specifically the character who married her step-grandfather. And she’s not even one of the Mormon ones!
• The gay daughter in Sister Wives.
Jacobsen’s Black Garlic Salt
I put this shit on everything. It tastes good!