2021 in review, life in review
Here we are in the final week of the final month of 2021. It's time to look back at my year and reflect on what I experienced and how it has shaped me. I also like to envision what I hope to accomplish in the coming year and set some goals to achieve those intentions. A couple years ago I started closing my office for the last two weeks of the year, partly for this very exercise. Also partly so I can take time off for the holidays and get some stuff done around the house.
One of the things I was getting done around the house this week was crafting. I cut, I sewed, I colored. I glued things to other things. I made gifts, I made decorations, and I made a giant mess. Then I cleaned it up. It was marvelously fun and nicely restorative. It was also poignant. Creating a cohesive piece of art from parts and pieces of many other images feels a whole lot like piecing together meaning from the various shards of 2021.
As I reflect on this past year, I am collaging all its seemingly disjointed aspects and events into the totality of my 2021 experience. A strip of insurrection at the capitol, a swath of tax season, a slice of summer fun before Delta, a piece of the epic saga of the table I ordered in August that finally arrived in November. A lot happened this year, and not much of it felt related to any other occurrence. Consequently, this year feels simultaneously like it flew by and as if it has lasted forever.
As part of my annual reflection, I am also reviewing what worked and what didn't. What served me well and what detracted from the outcomes I intended. I found myself performing essentially the same process as I looked through my box of collage scraps. There were nature scenes, images of food, and miscellaneous objects I kept for future bouts of creativity. There was also an assortment of comics I no longer found funny because they were really just people being mean to other people. And there was a label from a bottle of madeira that I thought contained a cleaver poem about the port-like spirit, but I realized (upon re-reading it) is actually a terrible tale of date rape.
I originally kept that Madeira label because I thought it was funny. And so did my parents. We laughed about it together when I was a teenager. Twenty years ago not one of us questioned the inevitability of a lecherous old man using his wealth to take advantage of a young woman. Today I recognize it cleanly as one of the many deplorable examples of social conditioning we're all exposed to that perpetuates rape culture. So I tossed it immediately and unceremoniously into the recycling bin, along with all the mean-spirited comics, and took a walk to shake off my disgust.
I'm grateful that present me can see those toxic things for what they are, although I'm not a fan of how ubiquitous it is. As I become more aware of what we are actually practicing through our ordinary actions and inactions, it feels harder and harder to want to participate in many parts of regular society. I even sang different lyrics to some of my favorite karaoke songs recently to correct for the sexism and misogyny. I guess I'll call it progress.
Standing at the close of one year comprised entirely of uncertainty looking toward the opening of another year shaping itself murkily out of near-total uncertainty is a strange place to be. Yet here we are. It's hard to make plans, but impossible to live my life without planning anything at all. It's been a strange year. It's a strange time. And I'm sure it's only going to get stranger. I guess I'm lucky to be a strange person. Maybe I'll fit right in to the future (assuming there is one).
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I love Xmas. Specifically the version of Xmas that’s divorced from religion and comprised instead of colorful lights, glittery garments, cookies, presents, and Santa. So much Santa. I love it so much because this is the version of Xmas I created (in collaboration with people I love). It includes all the things I enjoy and all the things that lift others up and all the things that create fun and magic in the dark and cold wintry season.
It wasn't always this way, but this is what I made it. Many years ago I used to do Christmas the modern-traditional way, where everyone was stressed-out and nobody had any fun. Then one year I decided I didn't want to do that anymore. I sat down with my family and asked to scrap everything and build our December holiday from scratch. So that's what we did, including only those traditions that contributed to a relaxed and loving day of being together and abandoning everything else.
It was magical. And it changed my perspective on tradition altogether. Years later when I planned my wedding I did essentially the same thing. I did not try to do all the traditional things. Instead I included all the things that were fun and meaningful to me and my spouse-to-be, and we let everything else go. As soon as something turned into a pile of stress because we were doing what we thought we should be doing, we axed it from the agenda.
In a similar way, my holiday celebrations have continued to evolve over time. Last year the Xmas season was a challenge because I couldn’t do all the things I like to do with my usual holiday celebration buddies. Covid had been around all year, so we knew going into it we were headed for a holiday season like no other. So I doubled-down on my own participation in Xmas. I wanted Xmas cookies, so I baked and decorated cookies. I wanted Xmas crafts, so I Xmas crafted. I wanted to watch Xmas movies and listen to Xmas music and see Xmas lights. So I played Xmas movies and Xmas music and wandered around the neighborhood to see all the lights.
It was also magical. Even though it wasn't the same. This year still isn't the same, even though we can do a few more things with a few more people thanks to the vaccine and booster. Ultimately it doesn't matter if I can never repeat a holiday experience from the Before Time. Something is only a tradition because we keep doing it. So do whatever you want with your holidays and change it as often as it pleases you.
Last year I didn't want to put away all the lights and stop gathering (over zoom) at the end of December because we still had one more cold, dark, lonely month of winter to get through. So I invented a-whole-nother holiday. I wanted to celebrate creation, creativity, and light. I also wanted to give everyone more excuses to be together in whatever ways we could during Covid. So JanCRAM was born.
At the start of January everyone picked a craft or a project or a new skill they wanted to learn (individually or in a group). Folks met a few times a week to work on our chosen craft. The whole month of January CRaft Art Making (JanCRAM) culminated in a celebratory Craftstravaganza. Everyone who wanted to shared what they had been working on and revealed their (finished or unfinished) final product. It was magical.
I love celebrating all the holidays. I love celebrating just about anything important to me or the humans I love. I am a celebrator. I am an enthusiast. I want to encourage the people around me in their endeavors and efforts. I want to celebrate successes and growth. I want to affirm everyone in their journey to becoming more fully themselves.
The point of life is to live it. Fully and deeply and with your soul and heart still intact at the end. There are plenty of dehumanizing traditions we follow every day: racism, sexism, capitalism. They only continue to exist because we continue to participate in them. Why not just do something different in how you move through the world? It might just be one tiny change for you, but do it long enough and it becomes tradition.
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Who moved my Grinch?
Part way through my initial training for my first job at the IRS, our instructors showed us a video called "Who Moved My Cheese." If you've ever worked a corporate job, you've probably seen the video or read the book. The animated short tells the story of four characters, two mice and two tiny mice-sized people, who each react differently to change.
In the beginning, they are all on a quest for cheese. They search through a maze and eventually locate some cheese. They return day after day to the same place, until suddenly the cheese is all gone. The mice had been keeping track of things, so they were not surprised. They knew the cheese would run out eventually, so the day it finally happened they just move on in search of new cheese.
The tiny people, on the other hand, had not put in any effort to monitor the on-going cheese supply situation. They arrived to their cheese stash spot brimming with expectation and instead find it empty. They are surprised and disappointed. Their initial reactions were the fairly common (and very human) responses of denying the situation and ignoring-it-and-hoping-it-will-go-away. Eventually reality seeps in for at least one of the tiny humans, who then processes their emotions and goes out to find new cheese.
The tiny people in the cheese story stopped paying attention to what was actually happening because they assumed what they had would always be there. They also assumed it would require no tune-ups or check-ins. I have worked the last few years to eliminate that assumption in myself and make maintenance of relationships and activities I care about a regular part of my participation in those relationships and activities.
This week I discovered one assumption I didn't know I had. I assumed the classic Dr. Seuss holiday tale "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" would exist in perpetuity, unaltered, just as I experienced it as a child. I have listened to Boris Karloff narrate the delightful anti-capitalist Xmas tale hundreds of times. I know most of it by heart and joyfully sing along to the song about how reprehensible and repulsive the Grinch is. I haven’t read the book in decades, so I decided I should buy copy and read along for fun.
But the brand new copy I got wasn't right. It was a different version of the story, missing a bunch of the zany Dr. Seuss vocabulary. Whos were hanging mistletoe wreaths instead of holly-who wreathes. The Grinch didn't puzz until his puzzler was sore, he puzzled for three hours. Not even a mention of the zu-zitta-car-zay ("a roller skate type of lacrosse and croquet!"). So I went on a hunt for the original text.
I found an image of a text from the 80's and was surprised to discover it was exactly the same as the copy I just bought. It was missing all the fun Dr. Seuss flavor that keeps me listening to the Karloff narration year after year. So which version is Boris Karloff reading? Maybe it was an even older original version than I could find online. Maybe it was an expanded version of the story written for the television special. Maybe for the last 20 years I've been listening to an adaptation I thought was the original.
I haven't finished my investigation into the origins of my favorite Xmas story, so I don't have a conclusion to share in this essay. But I can tell you why it matters, and why I will keep on searching until I figure it out. I have lived nearly four decades on this planet and most of what I was taught in school was at best only part of the story and at worst straight-up lies.
A great many truths I have taken for granted my whole life have turned out to be just a narrative some wealthy or powerful person or organization wanted me to hear. The most convenient truth for their interests; the interests of power and money. Once I discover something I thought was clear and solid was actually built on a shaky foundation, it's up to me to figure out what pieces I'm missing. Then I can put them all together into a more complete picture.
And that's what I'm after. I would like a more complete understanding of the world around me. That supports and is supported by a more complete understanding of myself. "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" is one small story I read once a year with much less impact on the world than many other things popular history has whitewashed or gotten wrong. But I still want to know who's version I'm reading, and why it's the same or different than the original.
Forces like capitalism are moving all our cheese all the time. We can feel it every day as long as we're paying attention. Like the increasing prices at the grocery store. The pandemic uncertainty persists, and the supply chain madness may never be resolved. Looking into my future is a lot less daunting when I know I am branching out from a stable root system. So I will continue to peel back the layers of how things came to be in the hope that I can better understand where we are headed and have some influence on how we arrive.
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2021: The ultimate OODA loop
This week I ran into a friend on their break. They looked bedraggled, so I asked what was up. They sighed and shared the following (extremely relatable) description of what work has been like for them lately.
This sounded exactly like the way many of my workdays have felt lately. I do a lot of things or answer a lot of questions or file a lot of forms or talk to a lot of people, but I almost never feel like I've accomplished anything. At the end of even the busiest day, I don't feel like I've progressed. Listening to my friend give voice to this work-stuck experience, I realized: it's just an OODA loop.
OODA is an acronym that stands for Observe, Orient, Decide, Act. I learned about it in a martial arts class, and it explains one way humans function. First, something happens. We observe, to take in what is happening; we receive and collect a bunch of data. Then we orient to the situation, to figure out what all that data means. Next we decide what we're going to do about it. Then finally we take action. The whole process usually happens in microseconds without us even noticing because the human brain is amazing.
In a fight, if I can be unpredictable in some way I can trap my opponent in their OODA loop. I could use broken rhythm timing or throw strikes from unexpected angles, so by the time my opponent has orientated to Thing 1, they have to start over observing a completely different Thing 2. If I can keep them stuck between Observe and Orient, they may never get to the Act part. That's good for me because it means I am much more likely to win. More likely I will score points in a sport match, and more likely I will make it home safe in a self-defense situation.
Just like all other things martial arts, this concept clearly applies to the rest of life as well. At work, every time I am interrupted (or I interrupt myself), I start again at the beginning of my OODA loop. Each new email means I have to read it (observe), understand it in context (orient), choose the appropriate response (decide), then reply, forward, delete, or save it (act). Next email. Repeat.
And that's the trap. I'm busy putting out fires as they flare-up, so I don't have time to make progress toward anything else. I'm not on the planning committee, I'm on Flame Watch. I'm busy just maintaining. Which is basically what I've been doing for all of 2021.
I realized this week I've been waiting all year for 2021 to begin. 2020 was such a shitshow, 2021 was supposed to be different. We were going to have a new President with new policies. We were all going to get vaxxed and Covid was going to end. Most importantly: we were going to get somewhere beyond where we had been stuck for the whole of 2020. So much hope. So much promise.
But the January 6th riot at the capital reminded us it was going to take a lot more than just a new Head Whiteguy to sort out the insanity that is our political system. Everyone who wanted to get vaxxed, got vaxxed, and summer was like a whole new magical world - until Delta showed-up. And it's still basically impossible to make solid, long-term plans. The 2021 I've been waiting for never arrived, and now the 2021 that did show up is almost over.
2021 continued the 2020 trend of serving up one maddening catastrophe after another. I recently observed that as a society we appear to have given up on getting rid of Covid. I guess I need to more fully orient to that reality so I can decide what to do about it. I've been busy trying to keep on keepin' on. I guess it's time to interrupt the interruptions. Then I can get to doing something with my 2022.
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We eat who we are
When I worked for the IRS, my team shared one floor of the Federal building with groups from several other divisions. As is common with shared offices, we also had a shared breakroom. And as is common in shared breakrooms, a battle over smells erupted frequently. The most memorable shot across the shared-smell-space-bow happened after one particularly pungent microwaved fish incident.
The next day a sign appeared above each microwave and on both sides of the breakroom door. It contained a colorful and satirical ranking of Olfactory Offenders, from least intrusive leftovers to most enveloping meals. Unsurprisingly, right at the top of the list were burnt popcorn and... The Fish. The sign politely requested the breakroom door remain closed while fish and other intensely fumed food was cooked to limit the volume of distraction that wafted out into the work area.
The sign was cute and funny, but what I appreciated most was the effort with which it had clearly been constructed. Someone took time to create the amusing graphic and chose their words with care to express their desire to avoid food smells interrupting their workday in a thoroughly playful manner. It was also printed in color, which was significant in a government office. Whoever created that sign invested 5 precious pages worth of their personal color printing allotment to bring us that beautifully crafted and hilarious sign.
Unfortunately, the sign didn't last long. It was swiftly replaced in less than a day by a much less interesting sign, comprised of black lettering and 3 boring bullet points. The sign said essentially the same thing, but all of the flavor was missing from the presentation. At the time, I assumed some fuddy-duddy objected to the original sign because the playful tone was too exuberant for a government office. Perhaps the same fuddy-duddy who forgot they share the office with other humans when they left the breakroom door open while warming their lunch.
Now I am wondering if it was taken down for being culturally insensitive. I listened to an episode of Code Switch this week in which they discuss the policing of ethnic food smells in public spaces. The replacement sign in my office breakroom gave the same basic instruction as the original sign, but it did not include the ranking of foods, which I am sure included dishes often associated with particular cultural traditions in the Offenders category.
Management never explained why the first sign had been replaced, so I just assumed it was too fun for government. It's also possible the person responsible for every corner of the office smelling like fried fish for an entire day felt too called-out. Or maybe a piece of someone's heritage was labeled as offensive and publicly mocked by their mostly white co-workers. If it was a cultural sensitivity learning opportunity, most of us missed it because we didn’t talk about it at the time. I guess I'm talking about it now.
I’ve never thought about the connection between racism and food until this week. I feel pretty disconnected from my Italian heritage living in the Pacific Northwest because it seems like there are not that many of us. There is a Bocci league and an Italia Fest and I grew up around many of my parents friends who also share Italian heritage. But I didn’t grow up speaking the language because my grandparents had to give it up to earn their White Card, and I can’t get a decent marinara anywhere other than my parent's house.
Back in New England, that is not the case. You can't help but accidentally run into decent Italian food. Good, delicious, simple marinara is absolutely everywhere! Every time one of my cousins gets married or somebody has a baby or any other significant family excuse to visit, half the reason I go is to eat a decent meal. Don't get me wrong, the PNW has amazing food. I love living here for many reasons and our brunch culture is high on that list. But despite the very high quality of food coming out of this region, there's no restaurant I can go where anything tastes like home.
I have often considered grandparents as the gold standard in any food tradition. When I go to a restaurant serving food from a specific tradition or region, I assume it will be delicious and authentic if someone’s grandma or grandpa is doing the cooking. But, of course they make things up and adapt their recipes just like I do. I’m allergic to the main ingredients in most prepared foods, so I frequently have to make my own versions of all my favorite things. I find some recipe online to get me started and then I just… make up the rest.
This practice has, in some ways, brought me closer to my Italian roots. A lot of traditional Italian cooking doesn’t involve soy or mint, so I’m safe from those allergens. It does involve cheese, but in the regions my family comes from it was goat or sheep cheese, not cow cheese (which is the dairy I’m allergic to). Italian food is evolutionarily what my body can process and enjoy naturally, so when I’m eating like I pretend I would in the old country, I don’t have to do much to accommodate my weird allergies.
I will probably never be someone’s grandparent, so it’s very unlikely anyone will consider me a cultural food authority. Who will pick up my cultural food traditions? Maybe the children of my cousins, but we live very far apart. Maybe my friends' kids. Maybe no one. And I guess that’s fine. Although it does make me a little sad not to share food with the future in a way that other kinds of legacy have never bothered me. Guess I'll feed as many people as I can while I'm here.
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Jaydra is a human in-process, working to make the world a better place. Sharing thoughts, feelings, and observations about the human experience.