Last night I superglued my thumb and forefinger together. Not on purpose. I was attempting to repair a ceramic spoon rest that my jackass cat, Herman, jumped from one counter he’s not supposed to be on to another counter, which he’s also not supposed to be on. A miscalculation on his part shot the spoon rest at the back of the counter and sent him falling to the hardwood.
This rectangular dish my wife and I had bought early on in our relationship, during a school trip to France. It had survived five moves, one across state lines. But it couldn’t survive 2016 unmarred.
It’s become popular to blame 2016 for everything bad. But as a person, not just a span of time. One of my friends put it this way:
If I learned anything in 2016 it’s that we treat years like gods now, that time, seemingly, has will
— snowflake gof barton (@goftyler) December 27, 2016
The personification of 2016 as a supervillain is pretty interesting. We seem to feel helpless, as if the year is out to get us and there’s nothing we can do to stop it. There’s just no better way, we seem to be saying, to express our bewilderment with the countless unfortunate events of the past 52 weeks. From humanitarian crises to celebrity deaths to political nightmares—or on a personal level, my wife and I getting laid off, my grandpa Charlie being diagnosed with cancer, and the unexpected death of my cousin Kim—some nefarious nutcase must be purposely perpetrating this horror show.
With all the bad remaining ever-present, it can be difficult to remember the good. So I decided to make a list of things that were pretty great about this year, even if, overall, I’d still like see 2016 get kicked in the balls and stumble backwards to fall into an active volcano.
1. New digs
In June, Stephanie and I moved into a house in Mankato that we really love. Built in 1908, it has hardwood floors and built-in cabinets. It’s a rental, yes, but it’s the type of house that we’d like to own one day. Did I mention that two of our best friends here in MN live in the upstairs unit?
2. First Anniversary at the North Shore
Stephanie and I stayed at an Airbnb in Two Harbors, Minnesota, for our anniversary. Exploring Duluth and other areas along the shore of Lake Superior ranks among my top experiences of 2016. We went as far north as Judge CR Magney State Park, about 30 miles from the Canadian border, where we hiked the Devil’s Kettle trail. It was a great place to celebrate one year of marriage and look forward to many, many more.
3. Scavenger Hunt
My short story “Scavenger Hunt” was accepted for publication in the summer issue of Midwestern Gothic. Which features a photo of the cable cars at the Minnesota State Fair on its cover. (The story also received honorable mention for MSU Mankato’s Robert C. Wright award.)
4. Independence Day Pregame Party
Using our new house to its fullest potential, we and Tyler and Erin hosted an American barbecue two days before the Fourth of July. We grilled out, tie-dyed T-shirts, and roasted marshmallows to a patriotic playlist. An intense Euchre tournament continued long after the sun went down. It was great to spend time with 20+ friends from the MFA program and their significant others, some of whom had just graduated and would soon move away.
5. AWP 16
Attending the Associated Writers & Writing Programs convention in Los Angeles was definitely a highlight. It also provided plenty of fodder for a short story I’ve been working on about an actress on the lam who wants to go back to doing commercials, those no-name anonymous roles, like she had to take at the start of her career.
6. Stranger Things, etc.
Who didn’t love this quirky, ’80s throwback series? We binge-watched every episode in one day. Can’t wait for season two. #justiceforbarb
Some pretty good, thought-provoking movies came out this year. The documentary 13th is a must-see for all Americans, and The Lobster is an absolutely stunning piece of art.
7. Elizabeth Moving to Minnesota
The day we watched Stranger Things was the day after my littlest sister Elizabeth moved into the dorms at MSU. Her living in Mankato has been great, especially our regular Sunday dinners.
It’s still weird to run into each other on the bus or at Target, but it’s nice to have her nearby. Plus, my family visits more.
7. Novel Workshop
Over the fall semester, I worked on creating a novel. The goal of the course was to produce a lot of words, to have a decent first draft that we could work on later with the skills we learned during the semester. I ended with more than 60,000 words and a good idea of how to address the myriad issues that demand I keep slogging away. Hopefully, this mess will turn into a beautiful, polished thesis by April 2018.
8. Prodigal Remodeler
My personal essay “Prodigal Remodeler” was accepted for publication in The Geeky Press’s anthology Bad Jobs & Bullshit. This is the first piece of creative nonfiction I’ve published, and it’s about something that means a lot to me, something I consider pretty much as key to me becoming the person I am as my education: working construction with my dad.
9. Publishing Grandpa Figy’s Memoir
My Grandpa Figy does not call himself a writer, instead using terms like “old chicken-plucker.” But over the past few years, he has labored away on a book about his life. It was never about making money. Writing the book was about fulfilling a lifelong dream and having something to give to his friends and family. This year after a lot of time spent editing and designing, I was able to help him print 100 copies of the book called What Life Is. I’d suggested the title What a Life Is based on a line in the text, but grandpa, being a man of definites, wanted to delete the indefinite article. Before I’d even seen them, he said they were all spoken for. We had to order 100 more.
Being around all of my Figy family was a nice reprieve from school life. Plus, the food!
11. Blind Pilot’s New Album
And Then Like Lions by Blind Pilot was probably my favorite album of 2016. Stephanie and I were able to catch the band’s performance in Minneapolis this fall, and it only reinforced this opinion. The concert also introduced us to folk quartet River Whyless, whose 2016 release, We All the Light, is an excellent album as well.
However, And Then Like Lions was the soundtrack to many miles on the road and late nights studying, writing, or prepping to teach. Joik #3 is one of the top cuts from the album.
12. The Good Brews
I don’t drink beer often—okay, that’s a lie—but still, when I do, it’s not Dos Equis. It’s the good stuff. This year I was able to try new brews in Indianapolis (Metazoa), Beijing (Great Leap & Arrow) and Shanghai (Boxing Cat), and a lot from across Minnesota (Castle Danger, Wild Minds, Voyageur, Montgomery, etc.). I don’t think I’m a snob, but call me one if you please.
13. Reading Year
My goal this year was to read one book each week, and I exceeded it. Only two rereads. This is the most I’ve ever read in a year, partly because I have to read a lot for classes, and my reading speed has increased quite a bit. Also, Jonathan Safran For released a new book in 2016 after a decade-long wait. The more books I read, the more books I realize I haven’t read. A quote from Mary Ruefle’s poem “Merengue,” which I read in her Selected Poems this year, comes to mind:
What book will you be reading when you die?
If it’s a good one, you won’t finish it.
If it’s a bad one, what a shame.
14. To My Healthy
In 2016, at the tender age of 27, I had my first physical. I also sought help for my mental health. I have struggled with depression and anxiety for more than a decade, and was diagnosed on the extreme end of both this summer. In the spring, I was so tightly wound at a poetry reading that a friend wouldn’t stop asking if I was okay. After a panic attack forced me to leave yoga class—YOGA CLASS, the most relaxing, mindful place one can be—I decided it was time.
Since I would be teaching in the fall and didn’t want to embarrass myself in front of students, and since I would be traveling to Beijing where 21 million people live, something needed to happen. Things have been much better since.
Stephanie and I travelled to Beijing and visited our friend Ben, then travelled south with him to Shanghai and Shaoxing. We walked a portion of the Great Wall and explored small hutongs. From the people to the food to the architecture to—oh my gosh—just everything—it was such an incredible experience.
One thing the doctor told me to do to combat anxiety is picture myself where I want to be. I didn’t know where that was before going to China. Now I picture myself in the courtyard of the Lama Temple on a sweaty day with Stephanie and Ben, the smell of incense rising through the air.
I wanted to become a teaching assistant to find out if I was any good at teaching and if I enjoyed it. I know the answer to the latter, and as for the former, I believe I at least did no harm. Teaching, like writing, is a skill that everyone has to work on—and work on, and work on, and work on some more. Continuing to work on my teaching abilities while not screwing up too badly is my goal for now; being boss at it will hopefully come later.
At the end of my first semester teaching, the director of composition reminded all of us new TAs how much power we have to engage students, to help them write, and by necessity think, better. This work gives us a chance to make a difference in students’ lives every day, she said. She said, Not many people have that opportunity. Looking ahead to the new year, I hope to prove those words true. I hope as a reader, writer, listener, husband, son, brother, volunteer, and teacher to make an impact.
And I hope we will forget about that jerk called 2016. And I hope we will not view 2017 the same way, as a maniacal madman inflicting his ill will upon us. Let us look at it as a story, something that each one must write, and rewrite, and rewrite, and continue to make sense of as we go.