Annus Horribilis-ish

Looking back on 2020.

January 11 2021

Brick wall of a building with a COVID-19 mask mandate sign
Covid mask mandate sign at Maplewood, NJ public library

2020 was a heavy, dark, horrible year, an annus horribilis for almost every living person. But all told it wasn't so bad for me and my family.

This is a privilege, I know, and the fact that my 2020 was more boring than painful — very chill apart from a deepening sense of existential dread — shouldn't be taken as me believing 2020 was a chill year. It was not. (And as I write this on Jan 11, 2021 seems no more relaxed or relaxing.)

A year ago I wrote this 2019 review post, and it's almost cute what small things I was thinking about then. Lots of travel, lots of chatter about my cool office and my new gym routine, lots of wishing for more of the same. Ha ha ha ha ha!

Instead of planned or hoped-for trips to Disney World, Munich, New Orleans, and Paris, I had a long weekend in the Catskills amid more than 300 days stuck at home. Instead of office parties and work-subsidized gym training, I bought a new standing desk and a Peloton and spent thousands of hours in my attic. 2020 was defined by a lot of things, but mobility and experiencing different places was not one of them.

Sheltering in place has served its purpose: none of the three of us have been infected with or exposed to COVID. And we've been pretty comfortable — my job has been stable and secure, we've watched lots of movies and built over a dozen big LEGO sets.

Working from Home

My last visit to my office in New York City was on Tuesday, March 4, 2020, and it turns out I will not be returning to that office even post-COVID; as far as I know we're not renewing the lease on that space.

Unlike many of my NYC- and SF-based co-workers, I worked remotely full-time for over a decade and have always had a home office set up, and most of my day is video calls with California anyway. I think I transitioned to working from home much more smoothly than a lot of folks.

Last January, before the lockdowns, I was asked to lead product management for Google Fonts. In the fall I was asked to take on some more work leading Material Design adoption inside Google.

In March, we launched a major update to the Google Fonts website, featuring new ways to find and use variable fonts. A lot of my time this year went toward some big updates to Google's brand typeface, Google Sans, including a new text optical size which you can see on the design.google blog.

I've been meaning to write about my WFH setup; to be honest a lot of my tips boil down to "have extra space at home" and "spend money on stuff."

I will say that if you (or your employer) can buy only one expensive thing for working from home, make it an ergonomic chair. The Herman Miller Aeron I bought in my original first year of WFH in 2006 is still around, and has saved my ass (muscles, also my back) in these unusual times.

Traveling and Eating

In 2019 "traveling" included family trips to Disney World, Ohio, and Texas, and personal/work trips to Melbourne and San Francisco. In 2020, it basically meant "leaving the house." (I haven't even been to NYC since my last day of work on March 4.)

We went three places last year, all within 2 hours of home: the Hudson Valley (for a masked hangout with a friend), Asbury Park (for a beach day), and the Catskills (for "glamping"). The latter two trips were during the few weeks when New York and New Jersey had exceptionally low (for the U.S.) COVID rates, and even then we were as careful as could be.

We did almost all our pandemic dining-out during our Catskills trip (and all of it was outdoors). The best thing I ate this year was a burger and onion rings from Phoenicia Diner, pictured below. In our house these last few months, "support our local economy" has become a euphemism for "order takeout" — we've eagerly supported Jackie & Son, Miti Miti Latin Street Food, BGR, The Red Cadillac, Arturo's and The Able Baker.

As a pandemic hobby — and not as self-medication amidst existential world horror! — I've been working to up my home mixology game, which I documented as a "cocktail of the week" feature in several of this summer's newsletters. Where before I usually stuck to home cocktails consisting of such exotic ingredients as bourbon and frozen water, in 2020 I used a lot of fresh citrus and even made some homemade grenadine and blackberry shrub (the latter from David Lebovitz's Drinking French).

Along the way I "invented" two drinks: the "Glover" (a Rob Roy with Japanese whisky and bitters, named for the first Google result for "famous Scotsman in Japan"), and a Paper Plane variation with St. George's Bruto Americano and Bigallet China-China Amer instead of Aperol and Nonino.

Reading and Watching and Playing on Screens

Before COVID, my wife and I went to see one of the last stage performances (for now) of David Byrne's American Utopia on Broadway, which was phenomenal. Spike Lee's film of the show on HBO Max does it justice, but seeing it live was incredibly special.

We've watched a lot of "Nordic noir"-style British detective shows during COVID: Baptiste, River, Collateral, the first four seasons of Shetland. We burned through both seasons of What We Do In The Shadows, and loved Never Have I Ever, The Queen's Gambit, Perry Mason, I May Destroy You, and The Good Lord Bird. Devs was all right, though it got a little extra toward the end. It's hard to believe The Good Place finale happened in 2020. Oh and, of course, Ted Lasso.

As for many of you, for us this was the year of the crossing of the animals.

Screenshot from Animal Crossing: New Horizons

Writing

I spent a lot of this year redoing and re-redoing this site but not crafting new content. This site's audience is practically nonexistent, so I really have no one to please but myself, but I'm a perfectionist, so I'm exceedingly hard to please.

In January, I started writing regular posts for a week or two, mostly in the "product management thought-leader" genre, e.g. On "authority" and People over work product. These posts are OK, but re-reading them now I think I was, amazingly, both half-assing it (both were written in short bursts while waiting for meetings to start) and trying too hard.

Last summer, looking for a COVID-era outlet, I jumped on the Substack bandwagon and revived my old newsletter. I had a decent run of sticking to my planned weekly schedule, until the fall/winter holidays and pandemic fatigue finally knocked me off my rhythm. All told I wrote 13 issues in 2020; my favorites were:

I haven't decided yet if the next one will be issue #14, or the first issue of a new series, or if I'll just focus on my website instead of a kinda creepy VC-backed content monetization platform. We'll see how the year goes! 😅

One lightbulb moment I had this week: I miss writing technical posts. I did publish one good one this year — a tutorial on how to change your Git repo's main branch name — and in the course of making four new iterations of this personal site I learned a ton and have some tricks to share. So watch out for more JavaScript, CSS, and static site generator content in this space.

Desk, Peloton bike, and Lego sets
My attic studio space in its final WFH configuration, January 2021

Coding Through Crisis

Like a lot of folks, I made the mistake of trying to "use" the pandemic as an opportunity to take on side projects. On May 20, I wrote:

Like a lot of people, I started the lockdown times thinking I’d finally have time to take on and finish some side projects. First I thought I’d make that to-do list app I’ve always dreamed of making, then I thought I’d make my own headless CMS app. Most recently I’ve re-stacked and re-designed my personal site/blog for the millionth time.

I've now re-done this site on Gatsby, Next.js, Eleventy, and now Hugo, backed by Markdown files, WordPress, Contentful, and Ghost.

My wife is a knitter; she knits whenever there's some down time, to pass the time. A nice thing about knitting is that you can practice a skill, and you get a sweater or hat out of it, an object whose purpose and use is simple and well-understood. The act of coding is, for me, a lot like knitting — the only problem is that you don't end up with a hat, you end up with software or a web site. People need warm, handmade hats; I'm not sure anyone needs handmade software.

I was feeling bad about myself for obsessively re-coding the same website so many times, but then it hit me: it's really fun to learn and try new tools, and each of these has tiny flaws that made them hard to fully accept. (Though my latest choice — Hugo — seems solid enough that it might stick.)

I learned a lot about all of these tools, and the ecosystems they're part of. I feel like I'm a much stronger JavaScript coder now than I was a year ago, to the point that it's now JavaScript and not Ruby I reach for if I have to write a script for something. Via Hugo I've started to (finally) dip my toes into Go, and in the course of trying to use TailwindCSS for everything I wrote my first Tailwind plugin.

Maybe I'll pick one of those side projects back up — I rather liked the little analytics app I was working on — but I may also just keep re-doing this site's tech stack for fun.

The One Good Thing

It can be hard to remember anything good related to U.S. politics in a week when right-wing goons stormed the U.S. Capitol in the name of the sitting president, and everyone is waiting for another shoe to drop.

But all this is happening because, two and a half months ago, we elected Joe Biden to the presidency. That day when it became real — Saturday, November 7 — was as indelible in a good way as last Wednesday was in a horrible way, a spontaneous explosion of honking car horns, cheering people, and good vibes across America and around the world. It helped that the weather was gorgeous here in New Jersey.

2021 likely has some horrors in store for us yet — COVID and its new progeny, the B.1.1.7 variant, are not done with us, nor are Donald Trump and his followers.

But a week from now the U.S. gets a new president, and in the coming months a lot more of us will get vaccinated, and eventually, gradually, we'll get our old, socially-proximate world back.

Hopefully, by 2022 it'll be safe again to wish for a new year full of travel and speaking opportunities and Galaxy's Edge. For 2021, I'm just hoping for peace, safety, and for things to start getting better again. That doesn't seem like too much of an ask.