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Year In Review

How We Coped With Quarantine In 2020

the shining
Screenshot: Warner Bros.

This how the Defector staff got through quarantine this year.

Buying And Selling Sneakers

In my hands was an orange-red shoebox with the Nike swoosh on it. The sticker on the side identified the contents inside: AIR TECH CHALLENGE II ANN QS. That means they were both an anniversary edition—the 20th anniversary, in fact—and a quickstrike release, a limited pair. The sneakers were, per Nike parlance, Black/Hot Lava-Flt Silver.

I opened the box and said, “Ooh!” like a big doofus. They were gorgeous—the same ones I liked when I was 10 years old. I had the white pair, though. This was my first time with the black ones. I ripped the wadded-up paper out of the shoes, and tried them on. They looked great. I promptly put them back into the box and added them to the wall of sneakers in my office. Where was I going to wear them to?

I have been a sneaker guy as long as I can remember. I definitely remember the first sneaker I ever wanted: The Air Max 180, in the ultramarine colorway. There was a ridiculous ad campaign, including one made by David Cronenberg—that convinced me: I needed this shoe. I got it, I loved it, I ran in it, I played in it.

I was a spoiled only child, so I often got the sneakers I wanted. I have a vivid—too vivid—memory of my mother putting my Jordan 6s (the black infrareds) in the garbage can and showing them to me because I did something bad. I don’t remember what I did, but I do know that I never did it again.

I started buying my own sneakers as I progressed into adulthood, and I began spoiling myself, too. Nike has helped push me along, using advertising and other media to create a market where a sneaker is not just something you buy every six months. Collecting sneakers is now a habit to be fed.

And it has been, for me, for a long time. The last time I did a full inventory of my sneakers was when my girlfriend moved in with me into a one-bedroom place in 2016. I had 44. No, wait, I had 49 if you count boots. By the time I did a rough count for an article in 2018, it was at 60.

My girlfriend is now my wife. “My place” is now “our house.” I just walked around the house —relatively spacious! Move to Philadelphia!—and did my first count. I’m at 113 pairs. Plus five pairs of boots and three pairs of dress shoes. Oh, and there’s at least five more sneakers on the way. Also I entered a raffle the other day for this new pair of Reebok Questions. If I hit it, I’ll probably pick them up. So, you know. 113. Or 126.

I have always thought of myself as a sneaker wearer, not a collector. If I win the chance to buy limited sneakers I like, I usually end up wearing them, even if they go for nice amounts on the resell market. Now I’m not so sure. I’ve been staying at home in 2020. I don’t need to wear fancy sneakers to run errands. I do, but I don’t have to.

But that’s not actually my story this year. I didn’t double the size of my sneaker collection just because I moved into a place with more than three rooms and because I didn’t go out much in 2020. It’s because there was not much to do but buy sneakers. I own 113 sneakers. I actually bought 192 pairs of sneakers this year (per a lengthy, embarrassing search of my records just now). Two hundred and twenty two! And, per another check that made me feel much better, I sold 145 of them. (If you’ve read these numbers and it seems like I should have more sneakers in my possession currently, I also sold off some old sneakers this year, gave some away, and threw some out when they got too gross. Farewell, cool Air Max 1s I got for $8.00 at an outlet once.)

When I was under- or unemployed in my 20s, I made up extra money by going to Nike, Adidas and other outlets to find sneakers and clothing to resell at a markup online. As it so happens, I was under- or unemployed in 2020 thanks to certain decisions I made at the end of 2019 and the collapse of my freelance market in March. I went back to it. I guess I went a little overboard. But I made $1,327.26 and kept 47 pairs of sneakers.

The Air Tech Challenge IIs weren’t the only semi-obscure 1990s retro I picked up this year. I got a pair of Nike Air Raid OG. (“When you got these as a kid, [the basketball team’s star] high-fived you and you were so excited,” my mom told me when we talked about them. This sounds accurate.) I more than doubled the number of Jordan 1s I own. I staked out the closing of one of my favorite sneaker stores, Ubiq, to get all three of their final sneaker collab release—then made fun of myself in the newspaper for it. I bought and sold 33 pairs of Air Stabs purchased at Nike outlets, for an average of a $24.19 profit a shoe. I sold a few hyped sneakers I picked up because I won a raffle with Nike or a sneaker store. I kept one pair of Yeezys and sold the rest. My only regret is not buying more Air Stabs.

I mean, not really. Obviously things got a little silly this year, even if I enjoyed the process of buying and selling all these sneakers. I even like my man at the UPS Store, even if he wears a Giants mask. But it’s incredibly wasteful environmentally. I could use the money and time in better ways. I don’t investigate—or even care—enough about how the workers who produced these sneakers are treated. If confronted with these accusations, my only defense is: “Without this habit to pass the time in 2020 I would’ve picked up another one, which based on a very small sample size would’ve been losing my life savings playing online blackjack.”

So this is how I survived 2020: By looking at the capitalist maw, in a world ravaged by disease and poverty, and throwing myself toward it. Yeesh. On a side note, when I asked my wife how many sneakers she thought I had, she said 145. Even if you include my in-transit sneakers and my boots, I’m still at 126 pairs. I think I now have permission to get 19 more? – Dan McQuade


Going On Walks

How do you mark the passage of time? Alarms. Commutes. Lunch runs. Scheduled meetings. Water cooler or smoke breaks. Quitting time. Happy hour. Showtime. Last call. First pitch, puck drop, tip-off. Playoffs. Opening Day. Weekend. This is what time was in The Before Time, and if our circadian rhythms were entirely artificial and dictated by the norms of workplaces and the whims of the social calendar, at least they worked. You knew, generally, what time it was and what day it was. And this was generally agreed to be a good thing, for various reasons.

Then the pandemic hit, and, combined with my unemployment and solo living situation, turned time into merely a suggestion. Did I occasionally awake at 4:00 a.m., realize there was no reason to be fully rested, and decide to “start” my “day”? I did. Did I give in to the temptation to take The Devil’s Nap (anytime from 4–7 p.m.), knowing it didn’t matter if I wouldn’t be tired at a traditional bedtime? Reader, I did, and often. Would I do laundry at midnight and drink coffee with dinner and find myself getting to the supermarket before it opened? Oh buddy. I had nowhere to go and nothing to do and, I think crucially, no way to meaningfully feel the passage of time.

Enter the aimless walk. “Aimless” is key here, because if you’re going somewhere, it then becomes a chore or a means to an end. But if you’re walking just to walk, walking just to not be looking at the same four fucking walls every waking minute, then it’s a lifesaver. 

I’ll walk for 15 minutes, or for two hours. I’ll take different paths, weaving my way through the side streets and alleys of my neighborhood, or the next one over, or the next one after that. I’ll walk down to the river or up to the park. I’ll get coffee, or I won’t. I’ll listen to music, or not. The key part is the walk, every day if I can, even now that I’m working again. 

It gets me out of the house. It reminds me that the sun exists, and moves to different positions in the sky throughout the day. It reminds me that the weather and seasons change, and can be marked not only by the temperature but by the plants and trees and even animals that I see. It reminds me that there are other people in the world! Real ones, with their own lives and activities.

Pandemic isolation can, at my lowest moments, make it seem like civilization has ended or is totally hibernating, but that’s not even close to true. Because I can’t be inside with people and I don’t want to be inside by myself any longer, I just have to be outside. And even when there are no reasons to be outside, there are walks. Walks to jog my memory that, yes, civilization still exists—it’s just biding its time— and that time is passing, and that this too shall pass. – Barry Petchesky


Detective Shows

I was out of work at the beginning of 2020. I had come off some writing gigs and TV research work, and coming into the new year I told myself I’d finally take time to develop projects I wanted to pursue. If I ever did want to write or produce TV shows or movies, I had to start investing in myself, as my partner, Mitu, put it. Then, somewhere around February I realized that was all a good idea and empowering, but damn, have you heard about this need to have money to live in New York? 

I remember being on the subway just after reading about this thing that was no worse than the flu. And then the world stopped turning, and my job interviews slowed down, later transitioning to Zoom and finally disappearing entirely. I had nothing but time and a very specific anxiety that comes from the feeling I should be doing something that is not the thing I am presently doing. My days always started the same: consuming as much developing COVID-19 news as possible, no matter how helpful or alarming. It was folly, and anxiety fuel. 

I don’t know when I decided to rewatch The Long Goodbye, I just remember very much wanting to see Elliot Gould as Philip Marlowe again. The 1973 film by Robert Altman is a curious noir adventure. Based on the Raymond Chandler novel, it follows the contours of most detective stories (hero gets pulled into a case they didn’t want, meets some suspects, has a wrench/dilemma thrown in their path, drives a lot and smokes even more), but takes place in a ’70s LA that feels almost too modern for the usual sleuthing tropes. Gould makes it fun, though, handsome enough to be commanding yet awkward enough for the morally ambiguous places detectives find themselves. 

Watching it started me down a path, from there I moved to The Rockford Files, Columbo, and Spencer for Hire. There’s a pretty easy theme to spot there. And so it went, maybe an hour each day, or a few hours here and there, I’d spend my time with James Garner, Peter Falk and Robert Urich as they quipped, fought, and outmaneuvered crooks. You would not believe how many scheming heiresses, corrupt public officials, or goons in bad suits exist out there. I told myself it was reasonable to watch these shows because they weren’t cop shows, but shows where a detective is trying to make things right outside the law. (Look, I know Columbo was a fed, but did the man ever really work with other cops?) 

It would be a quarantine cliche to say seeing these guys save the day was a salve, that solving a crime in 47-53 minutes offers a kind of reassurance that evil, in whatever form it takes, will always lose. That would be a lie. Sometimes the hero does some shady shit, other times the wealthy industrialist escapes to international waters. No, watching the detectives was comforting because they continued to work through yet more shit, episode after episode. They followed leads, dropped in uninvited at fancy parties, crashed cars and pissed off the local district attorney. They wore great suits; I promise you Avery Brooks’s wardrobe as Hawk in Spencer for Hire is worth watching any episode. What pulled on me was the nature of the arcs, stories so cyclical that the repetition turns to a kind of soothing. It’s the nature of episodic TV, and episodic detective work, to let you know that no matter what happens week to week you can always come back and try it again. – Justin Ellis


Roguelikes And Running

I already wrote about this here! – Giri Nathan


‘Tini Time

Before the pandemic, I was a regular. A few of the restaurants in my neighborhood have bars you can sit and eat or have a cocktail at, and after living here for six years, we knew each other. I celebrated big career wins there, and mourned big losses. I love restaurants. I always have. I eat like Guy Fieri in that I love almost all foods and relish the opportunity to eat them. What I love the most, though, is a restaurant martini. I love that very cold, precarious glass filled with clear liquid. I love to eat the olives off their tiny spear. 

But of course we can’t do that anymore. The restaurants were closed. The martinis were gone. The small talk was gone. I realized fairly quickly that part of what I loved about going restaurants was the fact that I could decide to go at 3:00 p.m. on a Tuesday if I wanted to, just for one drink at the bar. I loved that it gave me something to look forward to even if I had nothing else going on. So after about a month of lockdown, I decided that  the martini would be a special treat: I would have one only on Sunday nights, and video chat with a couple of friends. 

I bought some cheap martini glasses as I’m sure I will inevitably break them, and now I freeze them on Sunday night and Trey makes us martinis and I eat the olives while we talk to our friends through the computer. It was a deadline (to take a shower, to finish a work project, to put on some pants) that helped me feel like the weeks were distinct. There are seven days between each Tini Time, after all. It’s silly and small, but sometimes in the middle of a bad week (and they all do seem to have been bad this year), I remember that in a few days I get to have a little treat and taste for an hour or two the light burn of the alcohol, the acidity of the olive juice, the crisp, rare feeling of a laugh with pals, even if they are on the other side of a screen. – Kelsey McKinney


The Pizza Method

Even before everything else fell away over the course of this wary and miserable year, dinner held a frankly preposterous importance in my household. Breakfast is more or less the same for me every day; lunch happens whenever and however it happens, and is leftovers as often as not; dinner, made together with my wife in our impractically small kitchen, at the end of the day, beyond and outside the overwhelming blue-hued obligations of our respective screens, is our daily reward. We also get to eat the food we make, that is also a reward, but the greater part of it is beyond that. We get to choose it, we get to make it, we get to talk to each other while doing it even if it’s just ultra-mundane stuff like, “this fennel is fading” or requests to taste various grains for done-ness or saying, “behind you” as if we were working in an exceptionally small and unproductive professional kitchen. It is difficult to talk about this sort of thing in a way that doesn’t seem to deprecate it, and there is good reason for that—I am describing something most everyone does every day, the work itself is fleeting and fussy by definition, and it all inexorably ends some hours later with the leveling human indignity of Toilet Stuff. I am aware that, right down to the last two words of that last sentence, I am indeed deprecating it.

And yet, with opportunities to eat and drink with our friends suddenly fraught and fleeting and then gone altogether, with our usual weekly dinner out and periodic extracurricular happy hours or spontaneous beers no longer in the cards, and with everything else in our days fully subsumed by the relentless twinned anxieties of work and unemployment, dinner came to mean a great deal this year. Doing something that I have always enjoyed, and taken pride and delight in doing well, and which I also have to do so that I do not die, moved up the bracket of Most Important And Restorative Things In Life more or less by dint of every other competing thing being forced to clear the field. There’s a sense in which this adjustment was more like a clarification; taking some time each day to do something pleasurable and fully for us, and trying to do it as well as we can do it, was always important. It just happened to be the last important thing left to us.

We did not go through the bread-baking phase that was common among our bougie, graying peer group at the start of the pandemic; I take bread far too seriously to try to make it myself. But after some months we found ourselves backing into a regular pizza night. We never really did figure out how to do it such that we were eating at a normal time, but the combination of the shared labors and the shared result was both restorative in the same familiar ways and, quickly, even more serious. The call to start thinking about it all earlier than usual, the preparing and pre-preparing of whatever toppings we had in mind, the earnest game-planning and tweaking and hazy reviews of previous game tape for flaws or lessons—this was more or less work, in retrospect, but it was a kind of play-work. We really did try our best, we really did channel the spillover anxiety from the end of the day and the end of the week into this uncompensated endeavor, but we were also doing it because we knew we’d get pizza at the end. In my life as an idiot, I have been motivated to much greater efforts by far lesser rewards. But in a year that was smaller than and more inward than any other I can remember, it helped just to have a place to put all the caged energy and worry of every day, and to be able to shape and make it into something happier and fully ours. It made me feel more like myself, which is to say that it gave me something to do and let me know when I was done doing it. It was when the pizza was ready to eat. – David Roth


This Website

Took a longass time to get this site live. But once we got back to business… well now, it’s a strange thing to have one of your best moments as a professional happen right in the middle of a global shitstorm. I have only just begun to process my survivor’s guilt, but in the meantime I’m just relieved and unreasonably fucking fired up to be doing this again, and to be doing it with my friends and for all of you guys. Only gets better from here, I assure you. – Drew Magary


Watching ’90s Wrestling

I watched a truly disgusting amount of old wrestling shows during that period when no sports were happening, and this video of Sandman returning to ECW while a crowd of berserk bros sings along to the Metallica song is one of my favorite artifacts from the late-’90s boom. I don’t really know why. – Lauren Theisen


Twitch

I made a decision early on in quarantine: No matter what, I was going to stay home as much as possible. It doesn’t feel like a particularly insightful decision, given that it was and still is the smart thing to do. It also meant that I had a lot of time to myself, particularly before we launched the site. In the Before Times, I had a weekend freelance gig doing news for Inside Hook, and also had some random writing projects here and there. For the most part, though, I just had time to myself. In previous years, whenever I would have a lot of time, I would just play a lot of video games, or read a lot, or rewatch TV shows I’d seen multiple times.

This year, though, it was Twitch that came to my rescue. I would watch streamers and sometimes they would be the only voices I would hear all day, particularly when my old roommate was living with his girlfriend over the summer. I watched a variety of games. I would always tune in to Kripparian’s Hearthstone Battlegrounds streams, looking for tips; I would watch Disguised Toast’s Among Us streams because, well, they’re a blast. (Particularly the one night AOC joined, that was great.) Bluddshed’s Diablo 3 streams made me a better player whenever I picked that game up. And so on and so forth.

As we got closer to the launch of Defector, my anxiety was at its peak. Partly because we had no idea how well this site would go (thanks again for subscribing!), and partly because I had settled into a routine of idleness. Twitch would come to the rescue here again. We had discussed adding a streaming component to the site, more for fun than anything else. Right when we quit the Old Site, Patrick Redford, Tom Ley, and I streamed Overwatch a couple of times with no professional set-up or even a set time. Yet people tuned in. That made me think we could make this work with some prep work.

I got down to it. I watched a lot more streams, some IRL ones included because I figured that would be a good avenue for us that wasn’t just games. Drew Magary started hosting a trivia night for us just to have a hangout, and it was a pretty easy jump to streaming those for our readers. I dove into Twitch to figure out best practices, as well as the equipment I would need. (Brief aside: It was impossible to find both a microphone and a camera this summer; I guess everyone wanted to be a streamer.) Eventually, we launched the Twitch channel, and it never ceases to amaze me how many of you tune in and watch us fail at trivia or accuse each other in Among Us.

Even now, I will still throw on a Twitch stream when I’m feeling down. I watched most of Complexity Limit’s Castle Nathria world first race earlier this month; hearing these professional World of Warcraft players work their way through the hardest bosses in the game was a blast, even if I missed their actual kill on the final boss. I’ve watched more Overwatch League this year than ever before, too, even if I’m still bad at recognizing what’s happening. And I’ll still check in on the streams I watched earlier in the pandemic, which feels like ages ago. I may not know what all the new Hearthstone cards do, but Kripp is a mellow presence in my evenings. 

Twitch has its problems, of course, but it’s different enough as a medium to just watching TV that it provided exactly what I needed at a time when I was mostly living alone and isolated. That it helped my work here at the site is a nice bonus I didn’t expect when I started diving in, too. Will I keep watching as much Twitch once things return to whatever “normal” will mean next year? Maybe. But I’ll be thankful for how much time I spent watching people play video games for an audience. Not the worst thing in the world. – Luis Paez-Pumar


Getting Back To Work

There comes a point during the ‘rona that everyone reaches, when being in the house all day every day becomes a self-affirming tomb. It’s why people were back-ordering yeast and jigsaw puzzles and yarn for hand weaving and cleaning supplies and gardening tools and garage shelving from Amazon—because suddenly reruns of The Great British Baking Show were full-on survival guides, our Chefector posts were reinventing the reasons for eating, and the new MVP was DIY.

But as someone whose baking experience is toast, who doesn’t hand-craft, hates dirt and thinks the garage is just the spare bedroom when the family has had enough bullshit for one day, quarantine merely honed my couching skills. Binge-watching shows I’d dismissed as momentary affectations a year earlier, pretending to care about Korean baseball, avoiding all but the most monumental of political developments and watching contemporaries either retire, retire-in-word-only or get retired by force—all that worked for awhile, but I knew it would be temporary. The virus was going to beat us all not by the power of infection but by the slow drip of all-enveloping sameness.

Come September, though, this strange enterprise began, and I reacquainted myself with the joy of typing and the audience for whom I was doing it. True, the sentences were still towrope long, impenetrably word-vomit-y, still had that Scattergories-on-crank resolutions, and had a fairly consistent theme—namely, sports as expressions of naked and uncaring greed. But it was fun, and as someone who has always believed that there is almost nothing less interesting than other people’s fun, I found my own.

I could still couch, I still had motivation to pay attention to the world outside (except for college football, which can now piss off forever), and I could reduce the reasons why my bride, daughter and family dog could shun, poison or foul the floor beneath my feet, in that order. Writing was good, and writing for and with people I have mostly never actually met in person kept me from being mistaken for the upholstery.

Plus, and this is not to be dismissed easily, I could imagine them all not as they actually were, but as  I wished to invent them, and I could change the heroes and villains story lines at will, without the interference that actual encounters would impose. Everybody was swell,  and everyone was treacherous, all at my whim, and I didn’t have to wait for events to form or change my opinions for me. Comrade Magary was a weasel for no reason at all, until I got bored with that and re-imagined him as an entirely different breed of weasel with the same lack of evidence.

Not to mention the fact that they made me learn about forming a company (let someone you figure it out and sign whatever they put in front of you), birds (I gave you the barred owl, and you’re welcome) and this thing too, none of which I would ever have thought compelling. They didn’t get me off the couch—nobody can do that, for I can be obstinate about my sitting, but they did make the couch a better place. Plus, I didn’t feel the peer pressure to go to the kitchen and learn a new way to prepare swan a la mud in a Windex reduction or whatever the hell Comrade McKinney made for her holiday meal.

To be sure, 2020 still has unprotected sex with Satan, but it reinvented this particular form of furniture for me. Let’s call it a goalless draw in this year-long trough of abject sadness and defeat, and be happy with the valuable point that helps avoid relegation. – Ray Ratto


KBO Watch Parties

Korean baseball gave me and my kids our first fun in a fearful, boring time. Sports were an early casualty of COVID-19. March Madness got killed when pandemic panic first hit, and the NBA and NHL went on hiatus and MLB put off Opening Day with no certainty its regular season would be resurrected. I’d never viewed sports leagues as a public utility before. But man…

Then along came the KBO. 

South Korea handled the spread of the disease a lot better than the U.S. (Even with a December uptick in COVID-19 cases, the death toll in that nation of about 52 million remains under 1,000, while the U.S., population around 330 million, has 350,000-plus dead.) As MLB pitcher Sean Doolittle would lament: Sports are the reward for a functioning society. So while we had nothing sportswise stateside, KBO got rolling in the first week of May. ESPN announced it would have a daily broadcast. Me and my two sons, then 10 and 14 years old and whose days to that point in the shutdown were otherwise occupied with virtual school and video games, were ready.

The logistics were tough: The games started at 5:30 a.m. ET on weekdays. I hadn’t gotten up this early this often since I was a Washington Post paperboy as a wee lad. None of us could name a single KBO team, let alone any player who’d played in Korea before. But, again, we were bored as heck.

Right away, the pre-dawn watch parties became the funnest thing we’d done since the shut-down. We’d take turns “buying rounds” of soda as soon as we got out of bed (lots of taboos, like Diet Coke for breakfast, became kosher during the pandemic). As guys in bars would, we’d fight all the time over who’s turn it was to get the drinks. I felt lucky with every brouhaha.

The 10-team, single-division KBO was way easier to get caught up in than a multi-conference, dozens-of-franchises pro sports setups we’re used to in the U.S. We learned to recognize KBO logos and players pretty quickly, though mostly those who came to Korea from North America with MLB links. On the day of the first broadcast the three of us picked two teams each to root for with no scouting or research beyond being able to see their logos. (My wife opted out and instead stayed in bed until her remote work days would start.) So there was a 60 percent chance on any given morning that at least one of us would have a rooting interest in the featured game. From dumb luck I got the Doosan Bears and NC Dinos, the two squads that would eventually make the KBO Series.

The ESPN broadcasts were informal as heck, with play-by-play done from basements and home offices of a rotating cast of announcers, who looked like they’d also just rolled out of bed. The game calls were apparently made while using the same video feeds we were getting. Each KBO team was allowed one foreign player. Because of ESPN’s emphasis on the imports, guys like Roberto Ramos, Dixon Machado, Mel Rojas Jr., and Aaron Altherr briefly became stars in our household. The quality of play was fine, but largely irrelevant to me and my boys.

The early bird routine became the thing. 

Alas, our relationship with KBO turned out to be just a spring fling. As soon as MLB came back in late July, we dropped Korean baseball, as Ric Flair would say, like third-period French and went back to sleeping in and devoutly following the Washington Nationals game after game. The NBA and NHL had also resumed their seasons. Sports are back, and we’re massive consumers.

But flings can be memorable. Time will tell as far as my kids are concerned, but I know whenever I think back to 2020, I’ll remember waking up for KBO and all those rounds of soda. I’ve already forgotten how the Nats did this year. – Dave McKenna


Making Ice Cream

I made ice cream. I became an ice-cream hobbyist. I’d inherited an ice-cream machine from my big sister (she ordered one and they sent two), and for weeks and weeks of the spring and summer I cranked out ice cream by the double-pint probably twice a week. I used Sweet Cream Base 1 from Ben & Jerry’s Homemade Ice Cream & Dessert Book and converted it into a variety of ludicrously indulgent concotions. The best were cookies and cream with a thick swirl of fudge, and peanut-butter ice cream with a truly obscene number of smashed Reese’s cups in it. The secret ingredient was salt, except in the mint chocolate chip. As a coping mechanism it worked, I suppose, in the sense that none of us did a Delbert Grady. On the other hand I gained 45 pounds. – Albert Burneko


Watching Bollywood Movies With My Friend

I entered quarantine a sheepish Indian American who could have counted the number of Bollywood movies I’d seen on one hand. The count now spans something like two hands and a foot thanks to my oldest friend “A,” whose invitation to watch one with her in late March evolved into a weekly ritual, our Sunday night long-distance movie club. We eschewed nifty stream-syncing browser extensions, those pandemic darlings, and instead went the dismally low-tech route of Facebook messaging each other “starting now!” to coordinate pressing play at roughly the same time. 

Our picks included real gems—among my favorites was Andhadhun, a Coen Brothers-y thriller about a blind pianist who witnesses a murder—and classics probably worth seeing if only to have seen them (I will not soon re-watch Devdas, a tragic romance so saccharine it left me with a toothache). Hindi cinema has wholly earned its reputation for froth, and I couldn’t quite stomach all the gross displays of wealth or the kitsch (we both had a good guffaw at a man literally slapped off a building in one heist film), but I grew to see melodrama as its own kind of artistic virtue, relating a depth of feeling that refreshed me in this otherwise cold and underwhelming year. After each movie, we’d video chat, to digest what we’d just seen or to talk about whatever. It was our own makeshift brand of intimacy, she in San Francisco and me in Michigan. I’d never felt closer. The story ends the usual way: In September, she started her first year of law school, I started a sports blog and media company, and our Sunday nights could no longer accommodate both the ungodly runtimes of Bollywood films and the prosaic demands of adulthood.  – Maitreyi Anantharaman


Looking At Birds

I got very into birds during the pandemic. It started before the pandemic, in fact, when I became unemployed and a prolonged bout of depression meant that I spent a lot of time sitting on my porch in my slippers staring off into the middle distance while freaking out about how I would keep my home. Turns out there are lots of birds in the middle distance. Stare there and you are bound to spot some.

So I put out seed and suet and built some bird houses and it became a whole thing. Something happens when you start to pay closer attention to birds: A given bird that you see in a tree or on the ground or (best of all) on the perch of your bird feeder is suddenly not just A Bird but is a very specific kind of bird—say, a Black-Capped Chickadee—which has very specific markings and colors and behaves in very specific ways and visits under very specific conditions. Behind him on that other branch is not just Another Bird, but is a Tufted Titmouse. In that tree over there, where once might’ve been Just Another Dang Bird, there is an American Goldfinch. It is not colorful now because it is winter, but if I can keep it here long enough it will become the most glorious yellow color right around the time when tulips start to blossom, and that will be magic. I should try to find a way to keep it coming back at least until then.

It’s hard to describe or explain how exciting it is to see A Bird as they become individually identifiable. Birds are great. There are so many of them and they are all weird and new and incredible once you start paying close attention. Now I am a birdman. – Chris Thompson


Fostering Dogs

I fostered five shelter dogs over the last year. There was Ginger, Diamond, Cyclone, Diesel, and Lady, who is snoozing in the next room as I type this.

I wouldn’t describe fostering dogs as fun, exactly. There’s the initial tumult of bringing a new animal into the home, which is followed by the constant seesawing of feelings, which range from “This dog is kind of annoying?” to “I love this dog and I would die for it right now!” and then it all concludes with a whole bunch of pathetic crying after the dog finally gets adopted. I miss all the dogs! Sometimes I’ll catch myself just scrolling through old photos of each of them on my phone.

What I really got out of fostering was the opportunity to worry about something else for a change. Everything went to shit this year and none of it was in my control, but in each dog I found something I could constructively focus my energy on. Here was a living thing that needed me to feed it, take it for walks, love it, and try to help it become a better version of itself. At the very least, the dogs provided me with a reason to leave the apartment each day.

We were only supposed to have Diamond for two weeks, but she came home with us right before the world locked down and we ended up hanging on to her for 80 days, a period when the pandemic had the city in its teeth. There’s a big stone church near my apartment, and sometimes when I would take Diamond for her early morning or late-night walk, I’d stop and just stare at it while ambulance sirens blared throughout the neighborhood. A few times I thought about going inside and sitting in one of the pews and like, I don’t know, having some sort of cinematic moment of reflection during which I’d silently curse God or whatever. But then I’d look down and remember that Diamond was probably getting a little bit chilly, and that it was time to get her home so she could eat. – Tom Ley


The Bangtan Style Twitter Account

The last day I thought about my clothing was March 11. At the time, I was working in a production company office here in Los Angeles. I don’t think I spent terribly long thinking about what I wore, but I thought about it: made sure my top went with my pants, debated blazer or casual jacket, wondered which ballet flats I would wear, the bright purple or the light beige. And then I went about my day. The next day, I worked from home because my boss was out. The day after that, the entire office shut down due to the pandemic. I have not been to any office since. 

Since then, my wardrobe is probably a lot like yours: sweatpants and hoodies. The brand of sweatpants changes. The type of hoodie rotates (hmmmmm … should I do Gators hoodie or Defector hoodie today?). But every day I wear the same clothes while sitting in the same room doing the same work and I never break from this clothing routine because why would it matter? Nobody sees me. Which is one of many things I miss terribly. I miss being seen. (Well, full disclosure my husband does see me, but that’s not the same as other people, sorry babe.)

I do not miss everything about being seen. I do not miss the cat calls or the leering or the honking. All that can stay gone. What I miss, more specifically, is the crafting of an image that will be seen. I miss getting ready. I miss opening my closet and genuinely wondering is this a slouchy T-shirt situation or a crisp blouse situation, or is this dress perfect or overboard, and am I doing too much walking for heels or, to hell with it, I’m wearing heels anyway because I want to. It’s that shot of confidence from a new pair of shoes, your lucky earrings, or throwing on your favorite jeans. Clothes project a message about ourselves to the world and, done just right, they carry a touch of magic too. I miss that magic so much. 

So perhaps it’s no coincidence that my favorite pick-me-up this year has been a Twitter account solely dedicated to the clothes worn by the band BTS, called Bangtan Style. (Truthfully, a lot of ARMY accounts have been responsible for making me smile or laugh or at least feel less despondent this year. But we can’t be here all day!) The account is run by a member of their massive fanbase, aka ARMY, and the premise is simple: When BTS makes an appearance, the account follows up by telling you what BTS wore. And this being BTS—the band that released one album this year and then responded to the cancellation of their world tour due to COVID-19 by releasing another album—they are still very busy, and dressing impeccably every time. (How good are they at fashion? The longtime fashion writers Tom & Lorenzo once said of them, “These boys are so good at what they do and so exquisitely well-packaged a group, that they are one of the few celebrity subjects about whom we don’t think we’ve ever uttered or wrote so much as a word of disapproval or critique.”) 

I have voraciously devoured every update on their clothes, like my own personal, mid-quarantine red carpet experience. Where did I go after BTS’s Tiny Desk concert? To Bangtan Style to find out all I could about their coordinated 1970s looks (mostly Gucci and Etro with a mix of accessories). After their Esquire photo shoot came out, my first stop was Bangtan Style to devour all the details of their dreamy pieces (Valentino, Bottega Veneta, Celine, and Givenchy to name a few). No part of the BTS fashion collage is left uncovered. Bangtan Style can tell you the pajamas they wore in the Life Goes On video, the loungewear they wore on The Tonight Show, or the clothes worn by various members in their social media posts. When a piece of clothing isn’t easy to figure out, Bangtan Style stays on top of it. 

Because BTS has worked right through the pandemic, the person running the Twitter account has, too, and for this I’m so grateful. Most days there’s an update, which means I get to take a few minutes to check Bangtan Style, Google the clothing, and then just muse about it. And damn did I need to muse over something, to get lost in a daydream, to have silly frothy imaginary joy. This year has been about survival for almost all of us. Our days, our weeks, our months have been about the struggles to meet our daily needs: food, shelter, and safety. Our bodies demand these to survive, so of course they come first in the hierarchy of needs. But being alive without dreams always feels like a husk of itself. Safety keeps us alive, but dreams feed our souls. 

So thank you to Bangtan Style, the person who runs it, and everyone in ARMY who contributes to it for getting me through this, for giving me small but needed bright spots in my day. I will probably never own my single favorite piece of BTS clothing, the Celine teddy souvenir in satin rayon that Jimin wore for their Grammy Museum performance, but I do share with them several pairs of Converse sneakers and one pair of Carin sunglasses. That is enough. One day, some day, I will return to a life lived in clothing that isn’t hoodies and sweatpants and maybe I’ll throw in something that looks a little like an item I spotted on Bangtan Style. It’s just a fantasy, but one that gets me through the day, a little bit of magic I get to call my own. – Diana Moskovitz