2020 Year in Review: Memorable Events

I started a tradition back in 1996 of making a list of the most memorable events of the year.  I always say that memorable does not mean it is necessarily positive, and this year more than most will include some negative experiences.  That first list in 1996 had exactly twenty items, so I’ve made the list a top twenty every year since.

Here is my 25th annual list.

When considering 2020, there are three memorable things that for good or for ill (mostly ill) affected just about everyone.

  • The COVID-19 Pandemic hit the United States in March and life was turned upside down. Apparently the monkey paw’s finger curled when it heard me say that I wished I didn’t have such a long commute and could spend more time with my kids. We’ve all been home together every day since St. Patrick’s Day. Family togetherness has its plusses and minuses but we will surely always remember this time. And working from home is kind of boring, but I did get to make use of my back porch as an outdoor office for five months after neglecting it for most of the 13 years we’ve lived here. Of course, I am very grateful that we have a home, my wife and I are still employed, and no one we know has succumbed to COVID. We are extremely privileged.
  • 2020 also saw an uprising in the Black Lives Matter movement that’s been developing since at least 2013, after the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers. The mass protests touched every corner of the country and the world, even our neighborhood, and we were gratefully to see so many people out in support. It feels like something changed for the better this year in America’s reckoning racial inequality and violence, although there is still significant progress to be made.
  • Finally, there were the 2020 Elections. The defeat of Donald Trump, who never should’ve been president in the first place and should’ve been removed from office long ago, was a positive outcome. As unenthused as I am with Joe Biden as president, at least we have a chance to steer the country away from full-on fascism. Early in the year, I actually attended a presidential candidate rally for the first time when I saw Bernie Sanders by happenstance on Boston Common (back when standing in crowds of people wasn’t scary!). Through the year I’ve been trying to do my part to support progressive candidates and causes throughout the country, including the upcoming Georgia Senate runoff elections. I also got to vote in Fenway Park!

With that said, here are 17 more memorable things about 2020.

  • Boston By Foot – I spent most of the first two months of this year researching and writing a walking tour of Boston Common that I hoped to debut this year about indigenous people and early European settlers on the Shawmut Peninsula prior to 1630. That tour will hopefully go out in 2021. Instead of walking tours, this year I did presentations online, including a 10-year anniversary retrospective of our trip to Amsterdam, some storytelling events, and a live presentation from Franklin Park.
  • Myrtle Beach – On February break, we traveled to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Visiting a seaside town in the offseason was an odd preview of the empty streets and eerie silences that would become familiar once the pandemic hit the next month. But we also got to go go-karting, tour the beautiful Brookgreen Gardens in the rain, see sharks and jellyfish up close at Ripley’s Aquarium, and play the links at the home of the Professional Min-Golf Masters tournament.
  • Games, games, games – For the past five years or so, I’ve joined some fellow Boston By Foot guides for team trivia at bars in Boston once a month. Early in the pandemic, we tried virtual trivia through Zoom instead, and without even discussing it began playing weekly. Sometimes we even won! We also kept in touch with some college friends in Virgina by playing Jackbox games online. At home, my daughter made it a goal early in the pandemic to play every board game we own. I think we did it, maybe?
  • Another one of Kay’s accomplishments while we were home a lot this spring, was learning how to ride a bike and becoming quite adept at it!
  • Being home meant spending a lot more time in our back yard which was always an underappreciated luxury in the city. We even got a hammock, a pool, and occasionally a homemade slip & slide.
  • Father’s Day was warmly celebrated with cards, a walk in the woods, and turkeys.
  • Crane Beach – I took Kay, our beach-loving child, on three visits to Crane Beach in Ipswich. The first visit in July was really the first time we did anything that felt normal in this pandemic year and the stress of daily life melted away for a few hours. The other visits were cooler and gray, but we still had fun building in the sand and jumping in the waves.
  • 4th of July – Sometime in mid-May, people in our neighborhood began launching fireworks on a nightly basis. We knew that this would be a big year for homemade artisanal firework displays on Independence Day and there’s something to be said about being able to watch from the porch rather than schlepping to the Esplanade. The kids and I also went to a drive-in movie for the first time.
  • Baseball – I didn’t pay much attention to Major League Baseball’s shortened season (and I’m going to pretend it wasn’t a real season so I don’t have to acknowledge the Dodgers as World Series Champions). The biggest heartbreak in our household this spring was the cancellation of the youth baseball season. Not only do the kids love parenting baseball, but hanging out with the other parents during games is a big part of my annual social activity. During the summer, Peter was able to play games with two teams, and then in the fall played in a tournament and on a Fall Ball team on a full-sized diamond. He even hit his first home run! Meanwhile, Kay got to have some practices and pick-up games to scratch the baseball itch.
  • Susan’s father has been ill most of the year and had major surgery in July. We had to adjust to Susan being away for two weeks, and then she surprised us by coming home early. On the sweet side of things, Peter has showed his support for his grandfather by talking with him about Florida Gators sports.
  • The absolute highlight of our year was our visit to Grand Teton and Yellowstone. I made all the reservations for an exciting expedition in January and February, and then worried for six months about whether we should actually go. Luckily everything worked out and we spent a week in the great outdoors of nature’s wonderland! I published seven blog posts with a travelogue of our adventures, starting here: https://othemts.wordpress.com/2020/09/10/day-1-salt-lake-city-to-grand-teton-national-park/
  • Kay embraced Halloween with great enthusiasm this year including delivering treats to her friends at the beginning of October, making thematic art, carving pumpkins, and dressing as Darth Kayder with a dark chicken apprentice. We also enjoyed seeing the Zoo Lights at Franklin Park Zoo.
  • Peter spent his last day as a 12-year-old in the emergency room as he broke his clavicle after a fall while playing flag football with his friends in the first snowfall of the season. He was impressively resilient in dealing with a painful and inconvenient injury to begin his teenage years.
  • Plymouth – Typically, 3rd grade classes visit Plymouth, MA on a field trip but Kay only got a virtual version. So on Veteran’s Day we met up with a classmate and visited Plimoth Patuxet and the Mayflower II, coincidentally on the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower Compact.
  • Kay celebrated a socially-distanced 9th birthday party in our backyard with a Star Wars theme, complete with decorated cupcakes and lightsaber battles.
  • The first big snow fall of the year lead to some great sledding for Kay and her friends.
  • Finally, we embraced Christmas whole-heartedly by getting a gorgeous tree, three different advent calendars, and opening gifts galore. We also enjoyed meeting up with Kay’s buddy again for Christmas by Candlelight at Old Sturbridge Village.


2020 Year in Review: Favorite Books

Here’s my annual list of my ten favorite books read in the year.  As always, this is merely the best books I read this year for the first time and not necessarily books published in 20202. For previous years see 2019, 2018,  2017,   2016,   2015,   2014,   2013,   2012,   2011,   2010,   2009,   2008,  2007 and 2006. You may also want to check out My Favorite Books of All Time or see Every Book I’ve Ever Read cataloged in Library Thing.

Books published in 2020 are in bold.

Books Read in 2020

The books are rated on a scale from 1 to 5 stars with links to summary reviews. (A) is for audiobook.

Here’s a thumbnail of what the ratings mean:

  • 5 stars – all-time classic (I’m very stingy with these)
  • 4 stars – a particularly interesting, well-written, or important book
  • 3 stars – a good book from start to finish
  • 2 stars – not a good book on the whole but has some good parts
  • 1 star or less – basically a bad book with no redeeming values













2020 Year in Review: Favorite Podcasts

Podcast Hall of Fame

I’ve added eight new podcasts to my Podcast Hall of Fame.  These are podcasts that I look forward to listening to each and every episode even if that may not be reflected in the running tally of podcasts that appear in Podcast of the Week.

Class of 2019

      1. 99% Invisible
      2. Hit Parade
      3. The Memory Palace
      4. The Mortified Podcast
      5. Risk!
      6. The Thirty20Eight
      7. Throughline
      8. Twenty Thousand Hertz
      9. Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me

Class of 2020

      1. The Cine-Files
      2. Decoder Ring
      3. Hub History
      4. Unspooled
      5. Levar Burton Reads
      6. This Day in Esoteric Political History
      7. Throughline
      8. What Next

Short Series of Note

And Nothing Less

The centennial of the 19th Amendment is commemorated in this seven-part series hosted by Rosario Dawson and Retta who investigate the untold stories of women’s suffrage.

More than Enough 

This four-part series examines the idea of guaranteed income, or universal basic income, from the point of view of those who need it most,poor people.

Nice White Parents

Chana Joffe-Walt investigates why public education continues to fail Black and brown children over 60 years after desegregation, and finds that the problem is white parents with good intentions.

60-Second Science :: Science Sound (E)scapes

Three podcasts provide soundscapes of the Amazon: Amazon Pink River DolphinsAmerican Frog Choruses at NightHead Banging and Howling in the Amazon.

The Story Collider ::  Stories of COVID-19 

A series of personal stories of the most significant scientific event in recent history.

99% Invisible :: According to Need

A series about homelessness in the United States.

Favorite Podcast Episodes

BackStory :: Those Were The Days: Nostalgia in American History

Looking back at the “good old days” can have grave political consequences.

Fresh Air :: The Murderous Coup of 1898

Another event from history I’d never heard of before.  Wilmington, NC in the 1890s was relatively integrated for the time with Black leaders in city government until white supremacists organized to overthrow the government.

Twenty Thousand Hertz :: 4′ 33″

The story behind John Cage’s famous composition and why it’s more than a joke or a gimmick.

Hit Parade :: The White and Nerdy Edition

Chris Molanphy tracks the career of the most successful “novelty” musician, “Weird Al” Yankovic, with a considerable portion of the episode analyzing the history of novelty songs on the music charts.

Throughline :: The Invisible Border

A history of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the agreement that brought a fragile peace to the region, and how Brexit may undo 20 years of progress.

Memory Palace :: Stories to Wash Hands By

Twenty stories of historical events that last twenty seconds each, the perfect length of time to wash your hands.  Whether or not this is practical (I mean if you push play on your device before your hands are clean it will be contaminated, no) the stories are all very interesting tidbits of history.

99% Invisible :: The Natural Experiment

Isolating during the pandemic sucks, but it’s provided scientists the conditions for scientific research not possible during normal levels of activity, such as: air pollution, boredom, vaccination, and redesigning cities for people not cars.

Snap Judgment :: The Country Doctor

The story of an Islamic doctor who loves serving the community in a small Minnesota town until he learns that most of the people their voted for Trump.

Code Switch :: A Decade Of Watching Black People Die

The murders, the videos, the outrage, the hashtags – the pattern of Black people murdered by cops and vigilantes is unsettlingly familiar.  When will it move beyond a grim voyeurism towards actual justice?

What Next :: A History of Violent Protest

The history of structural change in America all the way back to colonial times is based on violent protest.

Throughline :: American Police

The history of policing in the United States from its origins in slave patrols to the present, with control of Black Americans as its central purpose.

Afropop Worldwide :: Africa and the Blues

In this podcast, we learn about how African music is more than just “the roots” and the ties between Africa and American blues traditions.

Brattle Film Podcast :: Behind the Scenes on Boston Movies

The Brattle Theatre in Cambridge had a great series on Boston Movies and all four podcasts are worth listening to, but I particularly liked this final podcast where they interview on-set dresser Adam Roffman about the behind-the-scenes production of movies in Boston and how they’ve changed over time.

Hit Parade :: One and Done Edition

We all remember the artists and bands who are famous for their one big hit, but defining a “one-hit wonder” is surprisingly controversial. Men Without Hats and Vanilla Ice officially have multiple hits, while Jimi Hendrix and Lou Reed are actually one-hit wonders. Chris Molanphy puts forward some parameters for defining a one-hit wonder that take in account cultural relevance as well as actual chart performance.

Planet Money :: Caste Comes to Silicon Valley

The constitution of India officially outlawed the ancient caste system in 1947, but discrimination against people based on caste persists in India and has followed Indian immigrants to the US.

Twenty Thousand Hertz :: Dies Irae

From medieval chants to symphonic compositions to the soundtracks of blockbuster films, a pattern of four notes has served to represent death.

99% Invisible :: The Lost Cities of Geo

A podcast near and dear to my heart because it is about web archiving, particularly the effort to save the first great iteration of the world wide web: Geocities.

Radiolab :: The Ashes on the Lawn

The purposes of protest and why they can’t be modulated to avoid offending people as seen through the story of the ACT UP protests to support relief from the AIDS crisis.


2020 Year in Review: Favorite Songs

There aren’t a lot of good things to say about the year 2020, but it was nevertheless a year filled with great music. Here are 20 of my favorite songs for 2020. Please use the comments box to add your favorites. And check out the end of the post for links to my favorite songs lists of previous years.

“Antifa Dance” by Ana Tijoux

“Be” by Mourning [A] BLKstar

“Don’t Start Now” by Dua Lipa

“Ferris Wheel” by Sylvan Esso

“Hapi feat. Big Rube” by Spillage Village

“Is There Something in the Movies?” by Samia

“Lifetime” by Romy

“Los Angeles” by HAIM

“The Low” by Jonah Mutono

“Mansplain” by Thick

“Phenom” by Thao & the Get Down Stay Down

“Shameika” by Fiona Apple

“Sing Gently” by Eric Whitacre’s Virtual Choir 6

“Siyabuela” by Asher Gamedze

“Take a Piece” by The Big Moon

“Take What You Can Carry” (Scientist Dub One) by Mia Doi Todd

“Tenebrist” by The Ballroom Thieves

“walking in the snow” by Run the Jewels

Favorite Songs by Year, 1973-2019


2020 Year in Review: Favorite Albums

I’ve reviewed 23 albums on this blog in 2020, and probably listened to just as many that I didn’t feel compelled to write about. From this list I’ve selected five of my favorite albums that I recommend you give a listen.

Check out my lists of favorite albums from 20142016, 2017, 2018, and 2019 as well.

Fiona Apple – Fetch the Bolt Cutters

Everyone liked this album and with good reason.

The Ballroom Thieves – Unlovely

The Boston-based trio released one of many albums that speaks to our time, on both the levels of personal relationships and social movements.

Mourning [A] BLKstar – The Cycle

I am unable to rank my favorite albums, but this is most likely contender for my #1 album of the year, and also the most important.

Run the Jewels – RTJ4

“Speaking to our times” is the theme of this years list and no one does it better than Killer Mike and El-P.

Sault – Untitled (Rise)

We may not know who Sault is, but the British collective released not one but two of the great albums of 2020.

Album Review: The Christmas Revels: Celebrating 50 Years!

Album: The Christmas Revels: Celebrating 50 Years!
Artist: The Revels
Release Date: November 30, 2020
Label: Revels Records

If you’re a long-time reader of this blog, you know that one of my favorite holiday traditions is seeing The Christmas Revels performed at Sanders Theatre in Cambridge, MA. I was eagerly anticipating this year’s 50th anniversary show, but that didn’t happen for obvious reasons. Nevertheless, we did get this gift of a double-disc set of songs recorded live on the Sanders stage from the 1970s to the present.

Live is live, so that means when listening to the recitation of the poem “The Shortest Day,” you can hear audience members coughing during the quiet pause. It’s a memory of a simpler time when someone coughing in a crowd was a minor irritant rather than a moment of horror. The songs bring back many memories of attending performances over the past 20 years. You can also trace the evolution of Revels from a show that began with celebration of traditional English songs and culture but grew to embrace holiday and solstice traditions from across Europe and the many cultures of the Americas, including African American, Indigenous Peoples, and Meso-American cultures.

I own every Christmas Revels recording every released and will likely continue to acquire them until I die. But if you want just one Revels album that captures the width and breadth of the Revels experience, I’d recommend this one. I should also note that there is a Christmas Revels performance for 2020 available virtually. Through the magic of video editing, performers appear on the Sanders Theatre stage intercut with film of performances from 1977 to 2019. I was a member of the cast in 2009 and you can totally see me in the background of those performances! You can purchase the virtual performance and the CD as a bundle, but be quick because the stream will only be available until December 31.

Rating: *****

Related posts:

Podcasts of the Week Ending December 26

Welcome to the final Podcasts of the Week post for 2020.  Stay tuned for the Podcasts of the Year post on December 29!

Radiolab :: A Terrible Covid Christmas Special

Is Santa an essential worker? This and other questions are answered about Christmas in Covid Times.

99% Invisible :: Mini-Stories: Volume 9

Some short pieces on topics such as the process of novelizing a hit movie, Switzerland’s strange defensive measures, and ABBA’s outlandish outfits.



Holiday Movie Marathon: Elf (2003)

Title: Elf
Release Date: November 7, 2003
Director: Jon Favreau
Production Company: New Line Cinema | Guy Walks Into a Bar Productions

I guess I’m a little bit of a Grinch, because I finally watched this “beloved Holiday classic” for the first time and it didn’t resonate with me at all. There’s not even really anything that I can find to criticize about it, I just found it to be almost funny without every really being funny. Will Ferrell does a great job as Buddy, an elf at Santa’s a workshop, who discovers that he was really an orphaned human and goes off to New York City to find his biological father, Walter Hobbs (James Caan).

I can appreciate Ferrell’s performance as a wonderous child in an adult body. I also like that this movie avoids cynicism and really commits to the belief in the Christmas spirit. But maybe because of these things there’s also no real conflict and everyone just seems easily won over by Buddy. I don’t know, I hate to poopoo on everyone’s favorite holiday movie, but this one wasn’t for me.

Rating: **

Holiday Movie Marathon: The City of Lost Children (1995)

Title: The City of Lost Children
Release Date: May 17, 1995
Director: Marc Caro & Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Production Company: Canal+ | Centre National de la Cinématographie | Eurimages | France 3 Cinéma | Televisión Española

The Brattle Theatre podcast stated that The City of Lost Children is a Christmas movie, so I’m going to run with it since I’ve been meaning to rewatch this classic for some time.  The makers of another classic, Delicatessen, created this visually-stunning, creepy yet heartfelt story about chosen family and hope in dire times. The setting is a gritty port city (kind of a dystopian version of Sweet Haven from Robert Altman’s Popeye) populated by sideshow performers, a criminal gang of  orphans run by malicious conjoined twins, and a religious cult of Cyclops who kidnap children.

Many of these children are delivered to an evil scientist Krank (Daniel Emilfork) on an oil rog who is stealing their dreams because he can’t dream himself. Working with Krank are a half-dozen clones (all played by Jeunet regular Dominique Pinon), a dwarf named Marth (Mireille Mossé), and a brain in a fish tank named Uncle Irvin (Jean-Louis Trintignant). This all really begins to make sense over time as details are revealed. In retrospect, I wonder how much this movie influenced the tv adaptation of A Series of Unfortunate Events.

Into this milieu enters the strongman One (a brilliant performance by Ron Perlman) whose world is turned upside down after his carnival manager is stabbed and his little brother, Denree (Joseph Lucien), is abducted. He aligns with a member of the orphan gang, Miette (Judith Vittet), to track down his little brother. The bond formed between One and Miette is what makes this film great, and I’m very impressed by the 10-year-old Vittet’s acting chops.  I looked at her IMBD page expecting her to be in lots of great movies as an adult, but alas her acting career was very short (although she does work in costuming for French tv series). 

This movie is absolutely brilliant but it has to be seen to be believed. Oh, and the Krank dream sequences contain imagery of many creepy Santa Clauses, so there is your Christmas content.  The themes of hope and family, though, make it even more relevant to the holiday. 

Rating: *****


Holiday Movie Marathon: A Very Murray Christmas

Title: A Very Murray Christmas
Release Date: December 4, 2015
Director: Sofia Coppola
Production Company: American Zoetrope

How time flies! I thought to myself that I should finally watch that highly-regarded Bill Murray special on Netflix that came out, was it last year? No, it was five years ago. Five Christmases based and I neglected to watch this hour-long special. Was it worth the wait? Maybe not, but it is mildly entertaining.

The premise is that Bill Murray (playing himself, or at least the version of himself he plays all the time) is hosting a celebrity-studded live Christmas special in New York. But a blizzard means no one else can participate in the show and Murray is distraught. After wrangling Chris Rock into an awkward duet of “Do You Hear What I Hear?” the power goes out and the show is canceled. Murray makes his way to the lounge where he basically starts a karaoke party with the other guests and staff stranded there (played by a bevy of celebrities including David Johansen, Jenny Lewis, Rashida Jones, Maya Rudolph, Jason Schwartzman, and the band Phoenix). Finally Murray passes out drunk and dreams of an elaborate stage show with Miley Cyrus and George Clooney as guests.

I went into this thinking it was a parody of corny old Christmas variety specials and about a third of the way realized that it’s a homage to corny old Christmas variety specials. Really, it’s almost entirely musical performances tied together by a meager storyline. Murray is surprisingly a great vocalist in his own right and sings well with all his guest talent. The humor of the show is light and really the only time I bust a gut was when George Clooney popped out from behind a tree to sing the chorus of “Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin’.”

Is it an all-time Christmas classic? Maybe not, but it was worth finally getting around to watching to get myself into the holiday spirit this year.