In a year when so many people lost so much faith in the fundamental institutions of our country (and I know a lot of people felt disenfranchised long before the past two years, and I know it’s a function primarily of good luck that I’d been able to live without that daily anxiety for most of my life), it seems pretty stupid to write a year in review post about the relatively minor events of my own life. But I feel compelled to do it anyway. Because the scope of the problems is so vast and still so unknowable that I don’t even have anything worthwhile to say about them. Because most days, the only thing you have is the personal. Because taking stock of yourself is at least one way to try to control some of the things you can control.
For the past five years, when people asked me and my wife what was new, we didn’t have much to say. We weren’t having children like so many of our friends. We were settled into the same jobs that we’d had for years. We already owned a home. Very little was changing. That was fine, even if it made for boring conversation. This year was different. A lot of things happened. Some of them were very good. Others were not very good at all.
1. I published my first novel: It didn’t end up in any of the year-end lists and it never quite broke through the marketing noise, but it’s selling much better than my memoir, and more importantly, my publisher facilitated a number of opportunities for me that exceeded any reasonable expectations I’d ever had for my writing life. I did live radio. I spoke at events in a dozen cities. I was featured (alongside Lauren Grodstein) at the Free Library of Philly. I got reviews and interviews in major publications. I flew to Vermont for the Misty Valley New Voices event, where the world’s friendliest people treated me to a dinner and a tour of their quaint town (I know quaint could be read as patronizing, but it’s the only appropriate word), and then taught me how to ski, then gave me a wine bottle with my face on it, then had me read to an enthusiastic crowd from the altar of an old church, and then they gave me dinner again, and then I had some bourbon sitting by the fire in the lodge and I felt like everything in the world was briefly okay. This all happened a week after the inauguration. When I landed in Rutland, my driver said he didn’t understand why people wouldn’t just give the president a chance. “I mean, he hasn’t even done anything bad yet,” he said. The next morning, the president signed the Muslim ban and when I came home, I was greeted at the airport by thousands of protesters. An inconvenienced passenger stood next to me in the terminal and said he wanted to beat the fuck out of all those protester pussies.
2. I spent a beautiful afternoon in Charlottesville, after speaking on two panels at the Virginia Festival of the Book. I had a salad and three beers and sat (almost) in the sun, and next to me, a woman who kept asking the bartender confusing questions finally apologized and said, “I’m sorry, I’m a poet.” All college towns feel a little bit fake, like movie sets built for young beautiful people, but I found it to be a very nice town overall. I didn’t know anything about the city’s history then. Five months later, Charlottesville would become home base for the white supremacist mobs the president loves. On the bus ride home, I would get a call from my wife telling me her father was dead. The rest of the year has been defined by his absence, and I don’t know what else I’m supposed to say about it. I’ve written so much about dead parents, I feel like I’ve used it all up.
3. Before my father-in-law died, when he was in the hospital recovering from a minor surgery that in no way suggested he would be dead soon, I told him I was close to selling my second novel, to a new publisher and a new editor (available in April!). It wasn’t official yet, but it was close. He clapped for me in his hospital bed. Seven years ago, when I published my memoir, he called me and asked, “How does it feel to have an actual dream come true?” And I had never thought about it in those terms before. I had dreamed of doing a thing when I was young, and then that thing had happened. It seemed impossible. I was trying to act very nonchalant about the whole thing, and he gave me permission to feel good about it. Anyway, he’s dead now. It’s hard to get past that.
4. My wife and I sold our first house, which we had bought at the height of the real estate bubble, using the life insurance money from her mother’s death as a down payment. We lived there for five years, and then moved because we were able to get a good rate on a house owned by an injured police officer who told us, as we were visiting the house for the first time, that he hated New Jersey and was desperate to leave. We spent the next five-and-a-half years renting the house because it was unsellable. Real estate is miserable, and I have thought so many awful things about the municipal workers in Barrington, New Jersey that I’m too ashamed to detail them here. Since 2012, we’ve completely wiped out our savings twice for the sake of that house. We’re lucky to have good enough jobs and few enough debts that we could survive it. To even entertain the concept of savings. I’ve been a homeowner for 11 years and the one thing I’m sure of is that I do not want to be a homeowner.
5. For the first time in my employed life, I worked on a two-year contract. I have to reapply for my job again in March, but for one year at least, I was certain that I would be employed in consecutive years. I think I’ll probably get another new contract, but also public education is being dismantled piece-by-piece and nobody wants to be an English major anymore. And I’m sorry, because this was supposed to be one of the positive items.
6. My dog died the night before my wife and I flew to Paris to celebrate our tenth anniversary. We’d owned her for three years. She was one of the dumbest animals who has ever lived, but she was very sweet and had had a hard life, and, though my wife cared for her deeply, the dog was more closely bonded to me. I spend a lot of time alone in the house and it’s nice to hear a dumb old dog snoring under the desk while you work. It’s nice to see her roll onto her side and slap her tail against the carpet just one time, summoning you for a belly rub. It’s nice to have some external motivation to go for a daily walk. With the dog, I felt more like an actual part of my neighborhood than I ever have in my adult life. I spoke to neighbors. I let their children pet the dog. I saw the subtle changes in people’s homes. The dog died because we chose to make her die. She had stopped eating and drinking most days, and for the last two months, she rarely left our bedroom. We were certain she would die while we were on vacation, and at least this way felt like we were doing something sort of humane. Having a dog is often a burden, and it’s expensive, and they make the house filthy. I’ve promised my wife we will wait a while to get a dog, and still I check Petfinder once a week just to see who’s available and who needs a home. Two nights ago, in the rain, I carved a hole in a Rubbermaid container and then into a Styrofoam cooler, which I placed inside the Rubbermaid, so I could construct a makeshift shelter for a feral cat we’ve named Oreo. We put food out overnight and it disappears, but I have no idea whether we’re feeding a cat or a family of rodents. It feels good to be taking care of something, even without the reciprocation of a dog’s heavy, dumb head dropping into my lap when she’s lonely.
7. What am I supposed to say here about Paris, besides that going to this city had been one of my wife’s goals since she was old enough to know Paris existed? We ate so much food. We drank a lot of wine (I spent a lot of this year experimenting with drinking more, and found that it works pretty much any day of the week). I struggled with the language. The toilet in our AirBnB stopped working on day 2. The Eiffel Tower was one of the seediest, most unpleasant landmarks I’ve ever seen. Crowds at massive tourist attractions behave monstrously. While we were there, the American president called self-identified Nazis “very fine people.” I had to email my mom every day to let her know I had not been killed by a terrorist. Everywhere we looked, there were police and military patrolling with massive guns. The crepes were great. We rode the Metro all over the city. We felt free and in love and for days at a time we could forget about all the other nonsense. You can be in a place where terrible things are happening all around you and still feel good about being alive if you’re with the right person. Platters of cheese help.
8. I wrote a short essay about guns that has almost certainly been read more than any other thing I will ever write. I wrote it in an hour, and it's one of the only complete pieces I've written since mid-summer. I don’t know what else I’m supposed to say about that either.
9. I taught an advanced fiction course and then the fiction capstone course, retaining many of the same students, and it was the best teaching experience of my life. Most days, I felt actual joy walking through the door to the classroom, looking forward to hearing what strange, funny, insightful things my students would say. I learned a lot about anime and also about swords. I was floored by their ambition and commitment to writing, which is so much greater than mine was at their age (I wanted people to think of me as a writer, but I had very little interest in writing; I barely even read anything then). We talked about whether fiction and art even matter in a world like this, and they continually reaffirmed my sagging faith.
10. I read a lot of books. Some of the books I liked a lot: Sweetland, The Red Car, Ghost Story, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Closely Watched Trains, They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, Mrs. Bridge, Girl at War, Dirty Diamonds #8, Massive Cleansing Fire. Some writers keep incredibly detailed records of their annual reading, and though I think it would be nice to be one of those people, I am not one of those people. It’s possible I’m a bad reader. You can find more about these books by searching for them on the internet.
What makes something a good year? I have no idea. A year is an accumulation of days in which you hope more good things happen than bad things, and then you make some promises to yourself to try to make the next one better. It all keeps happening no matter what you say or do.
Two out of five stars to 2017, a mostly shitty year in which some good things happened for me.