This Year Will Probably Also Suck
But I'm in a fairly good mood, all things considered
When my friend Jaq’s perfect daughter, Jasper, was nine (this was before I knew either of them), she drew the above image, which her mother made into magnets. A few years later, once I did know them, I got one. This is now my daily affirmation: everything thing wiLL proBally Be OK.
Maybe not. Obviously not any time soon. But at some point, proBally, it’ll work out.
(Yes, I just made fun of a nine-year-old’s spelling, twice, even though that is cleaner copy than many adults produce, because pronouncing “probally” in my head means I smile every time I think of it. Imagine: extra smiles, in this economy!)
I accomplished almost nothing in 2021, apart from staying alive—a more impressive achievement than usual, given the pandemic and appendicitis, but still, Pfizer, good luck, and a good surgeon were the heroes there. I didn’t finish my book, for the [redacted] year running. I got to a third interview for a grown-up day job, then knocked out in the final round. I am better acquainted with my couch than I have ever been, absent a major depressive episode. Between an apparent case of ankle impingement and fear of catching my death/killing an old lady during water aerobics at the gym, every day is a no bones day for the forseeable future.
But given the last couple of years, I’m not even in a bad mood. I like New Year’s Day, especially when I’m not hungover or expected at brunch. It’s quiet, we made it through the holidays, and now it’s two weeks to my birthday, when I can demand more attention than usual. I really have nothing to complain about, besides a pandemic, a busted foot, the erosion of democracy, the politicization of facts, half the country’s sociopathic disregard for other people (and facts), creeping theocracy, overfull hospitals, and the fact that I can’t tear myself away from Twitter because it feels like a lifeline in isolation, despite what it does to my blood pressure every day.
It’s fine. We’re fine. Everything will probally be ok.
Seriously, here are some things I did last year that made me truly happy:
I constantly marvel at all the ways we have to practice foreign languages now, which just didn’t exist when I was in school. Your options used to be: 1) In-person classes and dismal language labs, where you could listen to soul-killing 20-year-old cassettes on crackly headphones, or 2) Go live where they speak it. (Confidential to American friends, whom I love very much: Toronto is not where they speak it.) Now, there are a million free or cheap language apps, YouTube content galore, audiobooks, ebooks, and a whole damn world of streaming entertainment, including grim Belgian crime drama, Quebecois survivalist horror, and English-language shows I can enhance with French subtitles or dubbing when I feel like it.
All that plus Duolingo, when I keep at it, really works on me like they say it will. After hearing enough French on a regular basis, my brain started picking up on what sounds right, even before I could fully articulate why all the fiddly little words (several of which are single letters, for Pierre’s sake)—en, ce, le/la, a, t’, m’, y, etc.—go where they do in a sentence. The app asks me to put a bunch of words in the right order, and at first I panic, because how the fuck do I know? But then I take my best guess, and… it’s right. Most of the time! When it’s wrong, it’s not by much. Contrary to what my 8th-grade English teacher frequently yelled at us during grammar lessons, “sounds right” is too a rule, and practically speaking, it’s the only one that matters.
I did the NYT crossword puzzle every day this year, for the second year running. (I don’t subscribe to the paper, because I’m still mad about her goddamned emails, but Games and Cooking are worth the money.)
I started doing it partly because I needed a new hobby while staying home 24/7 for what I thought would be a few weeks (*screeeeeeeeeeeeaaaaaaaaam*) and partly as a weird little tribute to my dad, a crossword addict who died in January 2020. It felt like taking over the tiniest family business, or maybe just the atheist version of going to church to light a candle every day. Either way, death and grief come for us all, but daily puzzles persist, and somebody’s got to do ’em—if not me, then who?
For years, Dad joked-but-not-really that he did puzzles to stave off Alzheimer’s—which he arguably did for quite a while, if you go by his age at diagnosis, vs. his mother’s and sister’s. While I’m not hugely worried about dementia in my immediate future, the family history is there, and I have reached an age where brain exercise seems like a reasonable thing to add to my routine. (That’s also partly why all the French.) There’s that.
But the reason crossword puzzles are good enough to make my year-end list is that, after forty-six years of believing almost nothing is worth doing if you can’t do it perfectly on the first try, I finally came to understand why people tolerate starting out bad at something, then getting better so gradually you don’t even notice until months have gone by. Once you do notice progress, you get to feel real proud! It’s fun!
Over time, my speed improved, I started to understand the logic and language of clues, and I relied less and less on “check puzzle” and “reveal word.” As with French, the key takeaway after two years is: Steady practice makes you better at stuff. Why didn’t anyone, other than literally everyone, tell me this earlier?
In August, I took a part-time job at Uncharted Books, for reasons including:
The friend who owns it needed an extra pair of hands.
A place to go that wasn’t my apartment but still felt reasonably safe sounded fucking great.
I wanted to learn the business to see if my vague fantasies of opening a bookstore were in any way realistic.
The wonderful/horrible news is, I like it so much. I was half-hoping to find the reality tedious and irritating, so I could cross that one off the bucket list, but (knock wood) an indie bookstore with a progressive clientele in a neighborhood with high vaccine uptake has not provided me with any of the usual retail horror stories! One woman got a little shirty with me once, but I just kept smiling and answering questions until she left. It wasn’t until another customer congratulated me on keeping a cool head that I realized it had even been a thing.
I already knew I loved books in such a deep and nonsensical way that just being near them is a mood lifter. What I didn’t remember from the last time I worked retail, 30 years ago, is that I actually love people in very small doses. Chatting briefly with customers is like real-life Twitter! (And with less yelling from strangers who are angry about problems I cannot solve, as it turns out.) We acknowledge each other’s humanity, shake a little dopamine loose, and then they leave me to putter quietly among the books. Somehow, it all creates enough money to stay open. This is maybe heaven?
I go back tomorrow for the first time since before Christmas, and I can’t say I’m not terrified of Omicron, but I do miss being there. I’ve promised myself I won’t make any business decisions until I’ve got at least a year of bookselling under my belt, but so far, I sure haven’t ruled out having a little shop of my own one day.
Event! This Tuesday!
In the meantime, I will finish the victim book this year and submit it to my publisher, then eventually do the whole book promotion thing again. Which I also enjoy!
SPEAKING OF WHICH, please join me (virtually) this Tuesday night, January 4, at 7 p.m. CST, for the U.S. launch of Beatrice Hitchman’s brilliant new novel, All of You Every Single One, hosted by The Novel Neighbor in St. Louis.
Bea is a pal from my PhD program, and I am so glad I met her when I was old enough to see other writers as colleagues and friends rather than rivals, because she’s so good I would have fucking hated her in my younger and more envious years. Honestly, it’s still a bit rude for her to be that good, especially now. We’re having a pandemic here. Settle down, ma’am.
Maybe I’ll write more of these this year. We’ll see.
Happy new year.