Probably my most interesting spend of the year was joining italki. This is a site that matches up language learners to native-language instructors, over skype or a similar videochat setup. I've had weekly classes with a Spanish instructor, and added weekly chat sessions with a second Spanish instructor — more casual meetings that are basically practice sessions. This has been really useful for me, and helped me get from stumbling around in the language to mid-level B2 or so — I can usually say what I'm trying to say, I rarely read anything that really throws me, but I'm still struggling with listening to the spoken language at speed.
I wouldn't recommend italki for just starting out in a language. With Japanese, for example, I just can't speak it at all, so italki, where you're typically conversing with your instructor *in* the language you're learning, is a nonstarter. But it seems like a good next step if, say, you've gone through duolingo or a basic textbook, and find yourself plateauing at 'barely stumbling along'.
I didn't buy a lot of clothes this year, but I had surprisingly good luck with the purchases I made. I found a cheap rain slicker I like, some new favorite T-shirts, and a bunch of adorable striped fuzzy socks. After reading a thread on why men's fashion is so dispiritingly drab, I started picking up colorful trousers from amazon, and that's been a small thing to happy about. I also made an impulse buy of a plum/gray sport coat when I picked up my wedding tux, and have not regretted it.²
This year, we moved to a new (and fancy) house, so that's meant there were a lot of home purchases. Some of my favorites were fairly small items: we put a great headphone-hanger under our kitchen counter and a handy clean/dirty indictator on the dishwasher. We had pretty café lights installed on the porch. I bought a Meyer lemon tree³ and set it up in the backyard in a handy plant bag, and it's doing well.⁴ Lindsey has filled out the house with excellent furniture; I'll highlight one tiny little purchase I made: a console table for my office. This is perfect for eating while watching TV. My silliest purchase was probably this llama doormat, which I bought partly so that I could replace it with this one at Christmas. I now have three little window birdfeeders, and it was especially convenient to buy this tubing, which I can use to replace the feeders' little rubber perches when I inevitably lose them.
The big highlight among this year's tech purchases was this set of "Tile" tracking devices — little dangly things that I attached to my phone, my laptop, my iPad, and my headphones. Now I can ask any Echo Dot to find those, and it'll set them to ring very loudly. Generally, in 2019 I discovered that cheap smart-home devices are awful. But one exception is these cheapie smart-plug, which worked perfectly on the first try. Likewise, this outdoor plug works great for turning the café lights off and on every night. The most useful purchase was the Orbi WiFi mesh system, both because it was a zillion times more reliable than our cheap, shoddy router from Time Warner, and because it has a built-in parental-control system that I've been using to turn off *my own* access to social media most of the time. Finally, I had the good sense this year to get the battery replaced on my 2013 MacBook — Longhorn Mac Repair did a great job with it, and went on to do great with upgrading the memory (to 64GB) in my new Mac mini.
Here are a few miscellaneous purchases that don't fit anywhere else. The cats really like their new water fountain, which looks pretty and quietly aerates their water all day. I bought this snazzy wrapping paper for Lindsey's birthday, and it felt like a really fun thing to splurge on.⁵ And this year I finally switched to a new type of sleep mask, which blocks out sunlight *very* effectively. In the kitchen, we're really enjoying our new sous vide cooker (so much steak), and as much as I cringe at unitaskers, having a little apple-cutter has been great.
Now, let's change gears and talk about experiences a bit.
The wedding turned out beautifully, and most of that's due to Lindsey, and also Lindsey finding a lovely venue and hiring some great vendors: Merci Bouquet, Bride's Best Friend, Michelle's Patisserie, Byrne Rock DJ, and HighDot Studios.
And yes, some other things that happened this year. There was the crazy family reunion at a château in the French countryside. I didn't realize "reading all day in a fancy garden" was something I so strongly needed in my life, but here we are.
I highly recommend Novel Escape, the new escape room company in town with rooms based on famous novels. And the first season of Pandemic: Legacy has provided months of fun, nail-bitingly-tense gaming sessions.
I didn't read nearly enough books this year. The novel that absolutely blew me away was The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, a bravura piece of writing that I'd rank among the classics of the mystery genre. In nonfiction, my favorites were Five Came Back, about five American directors who lent their skills to the war effort in WWII, and Because Internet, which covers changes we've seen in the English language since the advent of the Internet.
Among comics, my favorite reading was The Snagglepuss Chronicles, which uses the old 60's Hanna-Barbera characters (of all things) to tell a biting drama about a great American playwright facing down HUAC during the middle of the Red Scare. Only slightly behind that is the Matt Fraction run on Hawkeye, which follows the Avenger when he's off-duty, telling a story that drips with setting, detail, tension, and keen psychological observation.
I didn't see nearly enough movies this year, either, but the standouts were lovely. In the theaters, I absolutely adored Knives Out, a giddy take on the classic whodunnit genre with impeccable craftsmanship and sharp social criticism. To my surprise, we also got the best superhero movie we've had in years with Into the Spider-Verse, whose intricate variety of animation styles *alone* would make it a stone classic, to say nothing of the heartfelt story and about a zillion jokes that most comedies would kill for.
Of the movies I saw on DVD, my favorite was Mission: Impossible 3.⁶ Any time this year somebody trash-talked JJ Abrams, I insisted that, say what you will about him, M:I3 is a damn near perfect action movie. He took a franchise that was spiraling into oblivion and gave it a perfect, simple story with an engaging emotional arc, their best villain ever, and even things to say about the world.
TV was just an embarrassment of riches. I'm still watching three different seasons that will likely rank among my favorites of the decade: Watchmen, The Mandalorian, and season 4 of the The Good Place. Among seasons I've completed, though, I can list the highlights.
The Dragon Prince is amazing, and you should watch it. Netflix gave two of the main creatives behind Avatar: The Last Airbender (the TV series, not the shitty movie) a Brinks truck of cash and creative freedom, and they've delivered a show that, over its three seasons, expands from thorny family relationships to grand epic fantasy. It does all the nuts and bolts of storytelling perfectly, it tosses off gorgeous, intricate world-building, and, if you're paying attention, it is all powerfully relevant to our world today.
I saw season one of Barry. It is as good as everyone says it is, combining a Fiasco game's endless ratchet of tension and bad decisions with one of the most trenchant satires of the acting world we've had in years.
Finally, The Good Place continued to deliver in its third season. I don't want to include any spoilers, so I'll just say that The Good Place is the true inheritor of LOST. The third season continues its trend of expanding the frame, making this batty theological cosmos we're exploring larger and larger, and engaging with greater and greater philosophical questions like they're taking down minibosses in a speedrun.
I didn't play a lot of video games this year — as usual, I spent way too much of my gaming time just zipping through Pandemic and Boggle over and over — but the ones I liked, I liked a lot. My favorite game to play was Islanders, though I know it's not the best. This peaceful city-construction sim was a beautiful, relaxing respite from any stress I might've been feeling at the time, and that meant a lot to me. I also finally got around to playing Ori and the Blind Forest — while its gameplay was often frustrating (I am, at best, awkward at metroidvanias), every aspect of its design is amazing. And I haven't seen storytelling better than Ori since I played text adventures.
Among mobile games, my favorite was Monument Valley 2, which is very nearly as good as the original.
Finally, I listened to a bunch of stuff on my phone — generally speaking, "too many audiocourses, and not enough podcasts". Among the audiocourses, I had two clear favorites. Medical School for Everyone: Emergency Medicine, while it focuses on the hospital emergency deparment, does a fascinating job of explaining what practicing medicine *means* — what principles and techniques guide your actions, what typical steps you take. Language Families of the World is another home run from pop-linguist John McWhorter, using listicle-formatted course to make expansive points on just how many ways a language can *be*.
Like I said, I did not explore nearly enough podcasts this year — so, my old favorite stands: Opening Arguments is a fascinating and funny discussion of the legal issues behind the week's news stories. And while it can be fairly depressing (our federal judiciary is fuuuucked, y'all), the insanity of making a regular non-lawyer comedian puzzle his way through bar-exam questions every week lightens the mood.
And finally, I got to see some good plays this year. Street Corner Arts is still killing it — both Junk and The Butcher of Babaroo were amazing. The touring production of Hamilton we saw here in Austin far exceeded the performance we saw in New York City. And I had a really delightful time playing in Maestro the night before our wedding. (Like ya do.)
And that's it for purchases and media in 2019! Hopefully 2020 brings more games, more art, and more awesome little conveniences for me to report on next year.
¹ Somehow I skipped this at the end of last year — boo.
² Also, this year I learned that "getting the lining replaced on your favorite coat" is a thing, so my favorite green tweed jacket is no longer falling apart.
³ My mom had one of those trees, so I thought it'd be nice if I grew one too.
⁴ U.S. Citrus provides good idiot-proofing instructions.
⁵ It also made everything look like how you might wrap presents in the world of The Room game series.
⁶ And yes, if you'd told 2018!me that I'd be saying that now, I'd've thought you were mad.