2021 Can Be a Do-Over Year

We can just start over. And over. And over. Photo by Matthew Landers on Unsplash

I had a rough 2019. No, you read that right. 2019. Some changes happened in my organization that required a ton of time and energy to be spent on tactical logistics that we had not planned for. The second half of the year got derailed and as I got to about November I was feeling exhausted and depleted. But I also felt that all the work had actually set us up for a better future and I was eager to get started on a big plan for 2020. 

I’m guessing you know what happened next. 

We navigated 2020 and got through it. In fact, 2020 ended for us with some real bright spots in a way that seemed to auger a better future in 2021. 

Despite that I found myself again feeling a bit depleted at the end of the year. And while good news at the end of 2020 was giving me some renewed energy and hope, there was still a lot of trepidation coming into January. And grief. The holidays marked a year since we’ve seen my parents. My kids were particularly distressed about that. 

I usually love making plans at the end of the year. In 2019 I bought the Big Life Journal New Year kit and we even brought our printouts to Florida to plan as a family. I bought the 2021 version but they sat, untouched, throughout the two-week holiday as the four of us sat at home, one day melting into the next. What was the point?! My 2020 goals and resolutions were still sitting there, taunting me. 

And then, of course, the first three weeks of January 2021 felt like 2020 had not left us. I kept joking that it felt like December 38th. (I’m sure that’s not original.) 

But as we come to the end of what is, normally, a go-away week for us, I feel the darkness lifting, just a little. I feel a new burst of energy coming. 

So as I head into the last week of February I’m reminding myself of three things:

1. 2021 can be a do-over. We didn’t make progress in 2020. THERE WAS A PANDEMIC. It’s okay. (And we did make progress, despite that.) We can pull out the plans, goals, resolutions and whatnot from 2020 and make that the 2021 plan. It’s okay.

2. We can begin now. There is no magic to January anyway. The year can start now. Or on March 1. 

3. And if the plans we make on next week or next month go sideways, as they so often do, we can, as Brad Feld regularly writes, Simply Begin Again. And again. And again. 

What I Read In 2020

I read a lot of great books this year, and my favorite, hands down, was the City We Became by N.K. Jemisin

For a few years now I wanted to “read more” but I realized one problem was that I could never remember what I read! More than what? So this year I decided to log my reading so I can set better goals going forward.

So here’s my list. I read 24 books. That averages to 2 per month but in truth I went weeks (hello, March and April. oh, and November) where I read very little. I read 14 nonfiction books and 10 fiction. This is a big change in my reading habits over my life — I used to be all fiction all the time. But as I’ve gotten older I’m find myself more interested in nonfiction and more impatient with bad fiction (of which there is a lot). Actually, there are a lot of bad books. But at least when I read a bad nonfiction book I feel like I learned something. Bad fiction just feels like a waste of time.

Luckily I didn’t read any truly bad books this year. Certainly some were better than others but they were all good.

So now that I have a baseline I’m trying to decide if I should set a reading goal for this year. I certainly would like to read as many books in 2021 as I did this year. But I care less about a number than I do reading more consistently. Without a commute (which I don’t anticipate having in 2021, certainly not for the first six months or so …) it’s a little trickier. I also don’t like to get hung up on a number of books because it discounts bigger and more challenging books. I think for 2021 I’ll just keep tracking books, but maybe do quarterly updates. That will help me keep on track, and maybe even challenge me to add a few more books to the pile. Also, it will make my little reviews a bit fresher.

Anyway, here’s my 2020 list …

(Note: The links are to Amazon using my affiliate account. I have this set up to pay to the nonprofit I run, Path Forward.)

Moment of Lift by Melinda Gates: I really liked this book. My life is organized around gender equality so this book hits me where I live. And while there was a lot in here I already knew there was plenty for me to learn and even the parts that were more familiar included language and frameworks that I found helpful in informing my own work. She does a particularly good job in explaining, with data, why gender equity can be so transformative to a society.

1Q84 by Haruki Murakami: I’ve been a Murakami fan since about 2007/08 when a friend recommended The Wind-up Bird Chronicle. I’d read several of his other novels but had been intimidated by the heft of 1Q84. Laura Vanderkam inspired me to tackle a big book and I chose this one. It was disappointing. Not terrible and certainly had some of the scenes and language that I’ve come to enjoy from Murakami. But the overall story just didn’t come together in a satisfying way.

Why We Can’t Sleep by Ada Calhoun: This book was all the buzz at the beginning of 2020 (before we knew we were going to have 7,392 more reasons not to be able to sleep in 2020). It’s focus is narrow, by her own admission, but the women she focuses on are women like me — affluent, white, GenX. Like the Gates book this one gave me some new ways to describe what I already know. Unlike the Gates book there wasn’t as much in here that I didn’t already know. But it did make me feel that I’m not the only one who feels how I feel.

Last Kids on Earth (#1 and #2) by Max Brallier: I like to read some of my kids books. This one was a fave of my son. Fun. If you have a kid, especially a boy, in the 8 to 12 demo give this one a try.

The Good Girls Revolt by Lynn Povich: This book is from a few years back and it’s about the gender discrimination suit at Newsweek. A fascinating piece of history. And a bracing reminder that if we have not come a long way, baby, we have had it much, much worse.

American War by Omar El Akkad: What a book to read at the start of a pandemic and in the year of an election that has ended with one side refusing to believe it lost. It’s a novel about a civil war in America. Exactly as terrifying as that description makes it sound. It’s very much a first novel but a worthwhile read.

How to Be An Anti-Racist by Ibram X. Kendi: I’d read Stamped from the Beginning a few years ago, after I heard Kendi on WNYC. It blew my mind and gave me a new way to think about racism and how it operates. But I found myself wondering what to do with that new knowledge. How to Be An Anti-Racist offers that “how.”

The Giver by Lois Lowry: Another reading what my kid is reading, plus a classic. Very dark.

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay: I’m a fan of Gay on Twitter and so her books have been on my “to read” lists for awhile. These essays were so, so good. Again, if you are looking for new perspectives to understand how racism and sexism (and the specific sexism that is aimed at Black women) operate in the world, this is a great read.

The Year of Yes! by Shonda Rimes: I’m a sucker for a well-marketed self-help book. While I’m someone who does often say “yes,” I still found this book helpful in understanding what holds me back from saying “yes” to certain kinds of experiences and opportunities.

The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis: I heard Lewis in the Chris Hayes podcast after this book came out and I knew I wanted to read it. A wonderful description of the federal government, what it does and how Trump has managed, in a few short years, to seriously dismantle important parts of it.

Why We’re Polarized by Ezra Klein: I’ve been listening to Klein’s podcast almost since its beginning and had been looking forward to reading this book. It’s mostly depressing but he does offer some ideas that could help to break what he describes as the “democracy doom loop.”

Atomic Habits by James Clear: Again, I’m a sucker for self-help, especially stuff about habits. The premise of this one is that by starting with very small habits (make your bed, exercise for 5 minutes) you can build a cascade effect. I’m a fan of this idea and also the idea of keystone habits — the idea that certain habits (generally exercise, sleep, etc.) can set the stage for other habits to take hold.

Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner: A very fun, very readable novel. Has a really fun twist that was no less so because I anticipated it a bit. Actually, it’s the kind of twist that your anticipation makes even better. Not sure if that makes sense — just read it and I think you’ll see what I mean.

The Yellow House by Sarah M. Broom: I loved this story. It’s about a house in New Orleans owned by the author’s mother and what happens before, during and after Katrina. Part memoir, part family history, part history of New Orleans and its Black community, it explores big issues through the most intimate lens. The writing is a bit clunky in spots but the depth of reporting and research the writer engages in to tell this story well overcome any stylistic challenges.

I’m Not Dying With You Tonight by Kimberly Jones: A YA book that got a lot of press in the wake of the summer’s Black Lives Matter protests. It was really good and gives both of its teen characters — a white girl and a Black girl — life and depth.

The Hundred Thousands Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin: I’m ambivalent on scifi but I heard N.K. Jemisin on the Ezra Klein show and I found the interview so intoxicating I started following her on Twitter. This books was very fun. It’s the first in a trilogy and the other two books are on my list for 2021.

The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin: I liked The Hundred Thousands Kingdoms, but I LOVED The City We Became. I have decided this was my favorite book of the year. Smart, intriguing, thought-provoking. And it is one of the best books about NYC you will ever find. Most books confuse NYC with Manhattan. This book does not make that mistake and instead sees all of NYC, including its contradictions. The prescience of NYC beset by a contagion is eerie — and even more so now that the COVID infection rate has spiked on Staten Island (read the book and you will get what I mean.)

Entitled by Kate Manne: I read Down Girl after hearing her on the Ezra Klein show (are we sensing a theme?). I loved it, though I was glad to have read it on my Kindle — it was dense and academic in a way that had me using the “look up” function quite a bit. Entitled is more accessible. Much like How to Be An Antiracist is the “how” to Stamped From the Beginning‘s “why” — Entitled does a good job showing how misogyny functions in society and the implications for all of us. In 2020 we got an up-close lesson in how much the entire society felt entitled to women’s unpaid and underpaid caretaking labor.

Uncanny Valley by Anne Weiner: If you’ve spent any significant time in or around Silicon Valley this is very much a must read. Her dissection of the culture and folkways of the tech sector is incisive.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt: I loved this book and could not put it down — until I got about 85% in. I hit a wall at that point where I was like “Wait, where on earth is this going?” I persevered and I’m glad I did. It’s a fun ride.

The Power of Habits by Charles Duhigg. More habits. This one is half self-help and half journalism. His description of the “cue-habit-reward loop” is helpful for thinking about how to build a new habit. You can see how it can be used to break a bad habit — keep the cue and the reward, replace the habit — but potentially tricky to pull off in the real world. Habits that are intrinsically tied to the reward (food or drugs, both legal and not, come to mind) may be harder to kick using this method. To be fair to Duhigg he makes no promises about its applicability in these areas. That said he does a good job offering a framework for discovering the real reward (e.g., are you eating a cookie every day because of the taste/sugar or because it’s an excuse to get up from your work and take a break to chat with coworkers?).

Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari: This book was on a lot of the high-falutin “must read” books when it came out (notably those of Bill Gates and President Obama). I see why — it’s a sweeping history of human beings on earth, including the ancestors we often forget. Why are their lions, tigers and cheetahs but only one species of human? Read this book to find out. But be warned: the humans who are left don’t come off looking great.

South Shore Bar Pizza

Where I grew up there is a regional food specialty known as South Shore bar pizza (or, if you are in an SNL skit, “bah” pizza). By regional I do not mean New England. I do not even mean Massachusetts or Boston. I mean the specific area of Massachusetts that is roughly south of Route 93 and mostly east of Route 24 (though a few towns along 24, like Stoughton, are definitely part of this story) and bound on the east side by the Harbor (or, again, if you are in an SNL skit, “habah”). The southernmost point is the Cape Cod canal. Hence, the South Shore.

Nearly every town within the South Shore has a restaurant that specializes in the bar pizza. The Lynwood Cafe in Randolph. Poopsie’s in Pembroke. Town Spa in Stoughton. While there are differences I’m here to tell you that the biggest predictor of which establishment you frequented was proximity. That doesn’t mean people don’t wax poetic about their favorite. Just try to get a Stoughton guy to shut up about Town Spa. It cannot be done.

A recent story about bar pizza in the Boston Globe (paywall) had my husband and I feeling nostalgic. We always get bar pizza when we visit our families on the South Shore. But, well, 2020. So we haven’t had it since last Christmas. I read the story, watched the video and cried. “Soon,” I thought, sighed and moved on with my life.

My husband read the story, watched the video and thought “I can do that.” So he bought bans, a food scale (?), a food thermometer and he was off to the races. And the results were impressive!

What makes South Shore pizza different? A few things:

  1. It’s made in a 10-inch pan, exclusively. There is no such thing as a “large” South Shore pizza. There’s one size. But if you think “Oh sure, I’ve had a personal pan size pizza,” keep reading …
  2. The crust is made with corn oil and it’s not stretched the way pizza dough typically is. Instead it’s pressed into the bottom of the pan creating a crispy, almost cracker-like crust.
  3. The cheese is a mix of mozzarella and … cheddar. It’s the cheese combo, I think, that gives it a distinctive taste. It’s also traditional, though not universal, to sprinkle the cheese all the way to the edge of the pan so there’s no real crust around the edge. Some places refer to this as “laced” because it creates a crispy edge of nearly-burnt cheese that looks like lace.

We increased the authenticity factor by making it with Pastene pizza sauce, a local variety that triggered an instant flavor memory for me.

While I’m still dreaming about my next trip up for the authentic original, our homemade version was better than I could have hoped for. It was a balm for the soul at the end of a very trying year.

If I was a better mother

If I was a better mother, I’d read every book before my daughter does so I’d know if it was appropriate.
If I was a better mother I’d drink less wine, eat less chocolate.
If I was a better mother, I’d eat less. 
(But not in a disordered way. Just in a way that is a good role model.)
If I was a better mother, I’d cook better meals that my children would eat without complaint.
If I was a better mother, my children would love school and do their homework without complaint.
If I was a better mother, there’d be fewer complaints.

If I was a better mother, I wouldn’t be tired. My children would give me energy.
If I was a better mother, I would never find my children draining.
If I was a better mother, I’d want to spend all my time with my children.
If I was a better mother, my kids would not spend so much time on screens.
(When they are on screens they leave me alone.)
If I was a better mother, I wouldn’t feel the need to be alone.

If I was a better mother, the kitchen would be clean right now.
(The kitchen is not clean right now.)
If I was a better mother, my children would never be sullen.
If I was a better mother, my children would be smart, helpful and cheerful.
If I was a better mother, they’d be perfect because I’d be perfect and everything would be perfect.

If I was a better mother, I’d do everything my mother did well and be better at the things she didn’t do well.
(Mom: You did everything well. You were perfect. Also: I’m sorry.)
(Mom: You weren’t perfect, but I love you anyway. Also: I’m sorry.)
(If I were a better daughter I’d call you more often, but that’s another poem.)

If I was a better mother …
It’s like a lyric in the most annoying earworm.
If I was a better mother, If I was a better mother, If I was a better mother, If I was a better mother … 

If I was a better mother, I wouldn’t be … the mother I am.

The mother I am is tired.
The mother I am is sometimes annoyed.
The mother I am wishes everyone would stop asking me for things.
All. The. Things.
The mother I am loves her children very, very much.
The mother I am …
The mother I am hopes that’s enough. 

Ambition, Food, Love, Loss

The bar at Prune, courtesy of their website.

It’s not really fair for one person to be so ridiculously talented in two wildly different disciplines. Gabrielle Hamilton is a chef’s chef, cooking food that is inventive, unpretentious and sublime. And her writing is lyrical, evocative and moving.

Her piece in the New York Times Magazine about closing down Prune, her East Village restaurant of 20 years, in the wake of the shutdown of New York City is sad, beautiful, bracing and somehow still hopeful.

The first paragraph will make you catch your breath. She is about to layoff all her employees and she dreams that she is unable to save her two children from dying. It is arresting in its powerful imagery. And it lays bare the lie we’ve all been made to believe about mothers and ambition (namely that motherhood damps down women’s ambition — it doesn’t).

I ate at Prune twice. Once in its early years. Once almost exactly a year ago.

After 9/11 I remember thinking about Windows on the World. I’d had an amazing meal there and often thought I should go again. But anytime we were able to go out we picked somewhere else. New York has so many restaurants. There will always be another time. Until there isn’t another time.

New York can be a hard city to love. You can go to a restaurant for years — decades! — and then, one day, poof! and it’s gone. The list of places that I still miss, still think about … Mayrose, Tramps, Da Silvana (a local place in Queens), Les Halles, Bluewater Grill, Coffee Shop (now a Chase bank!).

And yet, the reckoning has come. What will be left when we can finally lift up the grates again? Hamilton’s hope that she can reopen, reimagine, revive. It’s a hope I share. I’ll go back! This time I promise I won’t allow myself to think that there’s always more time.

What It Means to Have Empathy

Sometimes it’s enough to just be there. Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash.

This editorial in today’s WSJ (subscription required) really resonated with me. For those not willing to pay to read, I’ll summarize: The classic for formula of responding to someone’s sadness (over just about anything) is to say “At least,{insert much, much worse thing they could be suffering}.”

The author allows that while this sentiment is often well-intentioned it is never comforting. Being reminded that others are worse off than you are is the opposite of empathy.

I take a less generous view. I think too often the “At least” construction is, if not quite malintentioned, often a bit of one-upsmanship. “Oh yeah, well I know someone who has it much worse than you do.” That goes triple if the example of the worse thing is being experienced by the speaker. “But what about my pain?”

But even if the intentions are good, it’s worth thinking about why empathy is so hard. It’s very difficult to know how to comfort someone in distress. Telling them it could be worse seems like it might obviously be helpful. But it’s actually the VERY opposite thing that is helpful — acknowledging that the thing that sucks for them really does suck.

Before I had my daughter I lost a pregnancy. It was very early, which is the thing you are supposed to tell everyone so they know it wasn’t “that bad.” In fact I’m sure I’d had that very thought many times when I heard about an early loss — “At least she wasn’t further along.” I hope I wasn’t dumb enough to say that to anyone but I may have been. But after my loss I learned the right thing to say. “Oh my gosh, that really sucks. I’m so sorry for you.”

That’s it. That sucks. It sucks for you and so it just sucks. Period.

Believe me, I don’t need to be told that it could have been much worse. I’ve read stories about women losing babies in their fifth month — one such story almost made me pass out on a train. I get how much worse — physically and emotionally — it could have been. But it was still awful.

There are so many awful things now. My 12-year-old daughter may not go to summer camp — she’s been looking forward to it and will be crushed if it’s canceled. My 10-year-old son is unlikely to go back to school — it will be his last year in this school building so he may never see his teachers again. These are such tiny, tiny tragedies against the backdrop of so much human misery. And yet, to them, and to the mom who allows these little pieces of her heart to walk around on the outside, they are devastating.

No one wins the contest of “who has it worse.” Yes, many of us are very lucky right now — free from virus, in safe homes with plenty of food and incomes to support all of those things. And sure there may be times when there is a need to remind someone of their privilege relative to others. But it doesn’t need to be a contest.

Empathy is the ability to put yourself in someone else’s emotions. The “at least” construction tries to put the other person in someone else’s emotions. This is the lesson I learned from my loss: Having empathy doesn’t require you to understand an experience. It requires precisely the opposite, the understanding that the other person’s experience is what matters to them.

The months to come will give us lots of chances to practice empathy. If we collectively get better at it that would be a remarkable upside to a situation that has so many downsides.

The best writing on Elizabeth Warren

Like this sticker? You can buy it here. There’s also a bleeped version and lots of tees, totes, etc.

If you are a feminist who’s struggling to understand how it’s 2020 and we are still unable to allow a woman to lead the US, these pieces might provide insights, clarity, and sympathy. Or maybe misery just loves company.

Vox: What Elizabeth Warren’s loss says about us

Gail Collins: The Presidency Is an Old Boys’ Club

Rebecca Traister: Why Would He Lie? and The Third Rail of Calling “Sexism”

Connie Schultz: A Not-so Super Tuesday

Teen Vogue: Elizabeth Warren’s Campaign Was Doomed by Sexism

The Atlantic: America Punished Elizabeth Warren for Her Competence

Cosmopolitan: Stop Lying America: You Were Never Going to Vote for a Woman President

Jessica Valenti: It Will Be Hard to Get Over What Happened to Elizabeth Warren

I’m sure I’m missing some. If you saw something awesome, send it to me and I’ll add it.

Valuing Women as Women

Brit Marling as Prairie Johnson in a scene from “The OA.”Credit…JoJo Whilden/Netflix

Brit Marling had an essay in the NYT Sunday Review titled “I Don’t Want to Be the Strong Female Lead.” The entire essay is worth a read, but my favorite line was this:

“Because what we really mean when we say we want strong female leads is: ‘Give me a man but in the body of a woman I still want to see naked.’”

When I think about the gains women have made — and we’ve made plenty — so much of it is about achieving what men achieve and doing it the way they do.

I’ve always bristled at the idea that the reason women haven’t reached the top of so many professions is because they simply have different, nay nobler, aspirations. Isn’t being a stay-at-home mother so much more fulfilling than running a Fortune 500 company? It’s a false dichotomy, for starters, pitting motherhood against achievements in a way that we don’t do for men. And of course the answer for some women is “no” and yet we are still where we are in terms of women’s representation. I’m perfectly willing to concede that no, not every woman wants to be a CEO. But neither does every man. And I am willing to bet a big amount that there absolutely are at least 250 women who would relish the challenge for running a big company. So the “women just don’t want that much power/responsibility/stress” just falls apart pretty quickly in my view.

But I also bristle at the idea that men are the standard against which we should measure ourselves. As this earlier Times column noted, “As a rule, anything associated with girls or women — from the color pink to domestic labor — is by definition assigned a lower cultural value than things associated with boys or men. Fashion, for instance, is vain and shallow, while baseball is basically a branch of philosophy. Tax dollars are poured into encouraging girls to take up STEM subjects, but no one seems to care much whether boys become nurses.”

I want to live in the world where women and girls are valued, truly, really, honestly, as equal to men and boys. The world where that equality does not require women to be more like men.

The Joy of The Joy of Cooking

My copy of The Joy of Cooking is the 1997 version. There’s a simple reason for this: I was working at Simon & Schuster that year. There are few perks in publishing but a key one was free books. I think everyone in my family got a copy of that book for Christmas that year.

There’s a new version coming out this year. The WSJ has a wonderful piece {paywall} about it as the cover of their Off Duty section. This newest edition is overseen by John Becker, the great-grandson of Irma Rombauer, the author of the first edition.

Cookbooks are one of the rare bright spots in publishing (another is children’s books). People still buy cookbooks. This is true even while recipes remain one of the most popular offerings of the internet. (When I was at iVillage the three most popular search terms were sex, chicken and pregnancy. I’ll let you make of that what you will.) But how long will it remain true? And what will be lost when we cede every last bit of our lives to the hive mind?

Mr. Becker’s wife, Megan Scott, makes the point that Joy is for everyone not just trying to figure out what to cook, but how. “We’ve done so much research to find the right answers and get the best information we can get,” she tells WSJ. “The algorithm isn’t picking out the right answer [but] the most popular one.”

I still use my copy of Joy pretty regularly. When I’m looking for the “right” version of nearly any recipe it is usually my first stop. (My second is Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything.) As we near the end of 2019 the publication of a new Joy feels hopeful to me. There is still a place for authority and expertise. There are still right answers. We can debate what the right answer is — but if you are debating the right way to cook a turkey maybe we can start by at least considering the expertise of the guy who has roasted a lot of them using every method to arrive at the optimal one.

Women Aren’t Broken, Let’s Stop Trying to Fix Them

I have a few obsessions and one of them is a reflexive distaste for the idea that any problem that women have can be solved by women being … different. Better. Using different words, getting more education, standing up for themselves. The list goes on and on.

This editorial in today’s Sunday Review articulates one specific piece of this — the basic idea that if women asserted themselves they would get the raise, the promotion, and would not be a victim of harassment. This is all nonsense of course since women do ask for raises and promotions and definitely say “No.” to harassers. But the myth persists — if only they asked … more nicely, less nicely, some other, unspecified but definitely different way.

The writer flips this entire notion on its head — maybe the problem isn’t women. Maybe it’s men. Or, to put it better: maybe prizing everything men do, say, think while also denigrating everything about women is the actual problem.

I remember thinking this when Kate Middleton married Prince William. There were stories about women planning to get up at 3am in the US, organizing viewing parties where everyone would dress up and drink tea, that sort of thing. And then the stories and commentary inevitably turned to criticizing the frivolity of it all. Women just want to be saved by a prince. Caring about a huge, expensive wedding is just so … shallow.

And yet. When men go to some kind of sporting event in a crazy outfit with the teams logo and colors painted across his face that is viewed as silly, perhaps, but not as evidence of some basic lack of value. We certainly don’t believe that a guy who engages in this kind of trivial ritual can’t also command an executive meeting on Monday.