It is time, once more, for the grand tradition of sharing my five favorite moments of the previous year with you. Better late than never, eh? (It’s been a weird January so far.) The Top 5 began its life in an Austin, TX, backyard, on a cold New Year’s Day 2002 that had just begun about 30 minutes prior. There were cigars and fireworks involved. Drinking, too. Daniel Couch, Lindsy Lawrence, and I “thought” it up back in 2002, and the three of us keep it going through letters & email exchanges, instead of in-person, since we’re all pretty far apart from each other geographically but emotionally close at hand. (See the 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2017 editions.) So, what follows was originally written and sent as a letter, with all the floridness and casual chatter that this implies. It has been, however, edited, tweaked, and smudged here (including one wholesale substitution of one moment for another), to elide things that should belong only to our trio.
Enjoy, and (belatedly) Happy New Year.
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Dear Dan and Lindsy,
For me, this has been a year of, as Grace Paley puts it, long walks and intimate talks. I’ve spent more time outdoors than I’m used to, walking to one of the three neighborhood free libraries within two miles of me to give away a book (or 3-4) every week, or going on a Sunday hike to a new (well, new to me) trail within a 40-mile radius of my house, or just walking/talking with friends in all kinds of weather. I don’t know if I’ve got the weight loss to show for all this walking, because I still have lousy eating habits, but I feel better. Anyway, walk & talks is the theme of this year—well, that and grinding my teeth at Twitter, but let’s think positively. I’ll try to vary it up.
1) 365 miles. One of my New Year’s resolutions was to walk and/or jog 365 miles this year. On 30 December 2018, I finished, with a walk around Grant Park on a misty, overcast afternoon slick with the day’s rain and fallen leaves. I used the Nike running app that I downloaded back in 2015, when I was training for my one-and-only half-marathon, so I could track when I was at my best, when I faltered, if my pace was improving. There were surprises. I thought that, for sure, the summer months—with the Georgia heat & humidity—would be my worst in terms of productivity. But no. July was 31.89 miles; August was 49.73 miles—two of my highest months. March and November were the lowest, precisely the months (beginning of spring; height of autumn) that I thought I would naturally be walking well. Anyway, I got to December 1st, and realized that I had done 296 miles, and sighed. My first thought was there’s no way I can do 70 miles this month. I immediately wiped that thought away, and instead said, If I walk 2 miles a day, I’ll at least end strong. That’s 30 minutes out of my day. Surely, I could do that. December was unseasonably pleasant, I chose to meander a lot on my designated regular paths, to add blocks to my walk rather than use shortcuts, and to walk until I was done listening to a record on my phone—and I chose long records. I just got out there every day, and went longer than I planned each time. Finishing up this afternoon (70 miles in 30 days) felt like a quiet triumph, like I could think of myself physically with pride, for once.
2) Being a citizen. On 30 June, I participated in my first honest-to-God protest march, in support of immigration rights and DREAMers, and against the Trump administration’s ill-considered and unnecessarily cruel (not to mention counterproductive) policies. I have attended rallies, mostly in advocacy of gun control, but never actually trod in the streets, holding a homemade sign (“Melt ICE / Dump Trump” on one side, “Let’s build a wall separating Donald Trump from everyone else.” Not my most compassionate moment, to be sure…), and chanting in unison with thousands of others. It was thrilling. It was connecting. It was oddly joyous, largely to remind myself that I’m not alone.
3) Heavy. My writing workshop friend Suzanne is the book reviews editor for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, my daily newspaper. Last year, she asked if I would be interested in reviewing Peter McDade’s The Weight of Sound—a novel about the indie-rock life—for the paper. I did that, reading the book while in New York on vacation in August, and writing the first draft on a train from Manhattan to Pelham, NY. I did it well, glad to be paid for once and noting that I had never been paid so much for any piece I had ever written previously. But, I also figured that was the end of it. Suzanne, though, had more faith in me than I did, and keeps assigning me books to read. So, for the first time in my writing life, I have a semi-regular paying gig, with not-bad pay and considerable exposure. When Suzanne pitched Kiese Laymon’s Heavy: An American Memoir to me, I practically jumped out of my chair as I said YES. Laymon grew up in Jackson, MS, where I spent nearly two decades. We both are black men of a certain age (and size) scarred and massaged by that place in equal measures. Even more resonant, we both went to Millsaps College—in fact, I met him (on a night walk, of course) on campus, when I was there for a campus visit at age 17; he seemed worn down, and I didn’t know that he would be kicked out of there just a few weeks later. If I had paid more attention to his body language, I might not have ended up there at all, which is to say his life trajectory and writing raise a lot of what-ifs in me. Anyway, Heavy is painful and marvelous and troubling. It opened up something in me. I tried to convey that, I hope I did, I certainly gave a lot more of myself than I usually do in book reviews. The review got a lot of feedback, most of it positive, though I blocked a few trolls on Twitter and deleted more than one piece of hate mail. Most importantly, Kiese responded, thanking me, and we had a lovely, quick exchange about blackness, Mississippi, masculinity, and how life is these days. It felt good to connect with people over a 1000-word book review.
4) Christmas tree, O Christmas tree! Every year, my family gives me one or two new Christmas ornaments to put on my tree, which never exists. Though I grew up with the annual (plastic) tree, I have not gotten one in my adult life. I don’t know why, really. It’s too much trouble, I might’ve said. Or: A single Christmas tree for a perpetually single man just looks sad, I’m sure I said, but I didn’t get one when I was married, either, so what gives? It’s cheesy and an ode to a capitalism that I don’t believe in, I probably said (pretentiously and foolishly) more than once. Anyway, this year, I just… shifted. Part of it was just wanting some joy in the house after a tough year. Part of it was, honestly, giggling to myself about how my cat would react to a tree. (Zadie did not disappoint.) Part of it was wanting to share in the joy of sending Christmas tree-and-light photos to my family by text. When I said I was getting a tree and door wreath, the advice floodgates just opened up. Here’s how much to water it. Here’s what to look for in a good tree. Remember to spritz the wreath with water every day, preferably in the morning so that the water doesn’t freeze on the pine needles. Use LED lights instead of the other ones. Here’s the tree food to buy. Remember to get the tree guy to cut the stem evenly, so that it’ll drink water. Hell, I drunk it all in. And the house smelled like a forest every time I came home. The cat took to sleeping under it, and didn’t bother the ornaments or try to climb in it; it was just a pleasant new piece of furniture for her. It came down on New Year’s Day, which made me a little blue, but even more excited for the 2019 iteration.
5) A nice weekend in August. My friend Andrew is a historian of early America—settler colonialism, slavery, environmental razing, the whole depressing bit. That bit, as it happens, is a large chunk of what I acquire and edit for my day job. He contributed an essay to an edited collection I acquired, and we attend the same history conference, so we became friendly drinking buddies, and then just friends. In July 2017, at this conference, we went with a large group to a great Philadelphia restaurant, and then a crowded and nutty Irish bar to cheer on U.S. men’s soccer, and then watched with delight as the place transformed, as soon as the game ended (the U.S. won) to a hyped-up Latin dance scene. I was checking my phone for updates on the Baker’s Dozen residency that Phish was having at Madison Square Garden. Finally, Andrew asked me what was up, and I had to explain the whole weird concept—13 shows (two sets apiece), each show named for a type of donut, which gave a hint to which songs would be played that night, and the free donuts of said theme given to the first 1000 people inside the venue (Madison Square Garden), with no repeated songs for the entire run. He grew increasingly intrigued, and then thrilled, and then he said: “I should go to a show sometime.” And I said, “Hey, Atlanta’s a stronghold for them. They play multiple shows there every year. If they do in 2018, I’ve got a guest room, and I’ll buy you your first show—you’re on your own after that.” And I thought nothing more of it. (We had had a lot of beer.) Come March 2018: A text from Andrew. So, they just announced Summer Tour. How serious were you about that offer? And that’s how I wound up spending the first weekend in August introducing Andrew to Phish—three shows, no repeated songs—and showing him around my version of Atlanta. Knowing that he’s a soccer nut on par with the average British hooligan (and Andrews roots for—excuse me, supports Fulham FC), we went to the Brewhouse Pub, the straight-up hardcore football pub of Atlanta. We ate at Home Grown, my favorite breakfast spot. He bought a copy of our book at A Cappella Books. We discovered the Michael C. Carlos Museum together that became an instant favorite, devoted to antiquities and classical art. He bonded with my cat. The music was lovely but, more importantly, we solidified our friendship. It was an incredible three days of fellowship.
Love and all best for 2019,
P.S. I didn’t attend this show but here’s how Phish rang in the new year. Look, I get if you don’t like the music, yadda yadda yadda. Mute the sound, and watch the goofy splendor. I love that the gag isn’t over after “Auld Lang Syne” but instead takes things to a whole ‘nother level.