2018: A Year in Review

We knew the day would come. It was time to leave New York, a place we called home for more than 8 wonderful years. With the arrival of Oscar in 2017, it was just a matter of waiting for our apartment lease to expire, giving us a 90-day period to say our bittersweet goodbyes to a city whose affection was just as elusive as it was rewarding.

Repatriation can take its toll on you. It involves a lot of emotional, financial and mental preparation. Despite all this, my family powered through the first quarter of 2018, shipping twelve big boxes, a few pieces of art, a reliable dining table and two kids from the Upper West Side to the suburban town in Manila that is Alabang. My family was finally home.

While all this was happening, I still had one foot in Manhattan’s door. I managed to secure a pretty great arrangement with my then employer, News Deeply, to continue working from Asia. In order to make this happen, I would voluntarily fly back to New York every quarter, a month at a time. If you read between the lines, I figured out a way to not say goodbye. 

With this unconventional work agreement, I’d start my workday at 4 PM and finish by midnight. It worked out pretty well – in the daytime I got to chat with our development teams in Ukraine and India while hanging out with the kids. A couple of months would pass and the next thing I knew, I was on a flight back to New York.

I always felt that I never left. Only the seasons changed. But the pain of trying to find an apartment, missing my kids and dealing with jetlag (every quarter, a month a time) made me wonder if it was a good idea after all. Was it really worth it?

2018 was also a terrible year for digital media (especially in New York). Towards the end of August 2018, News Deeply entered into survival mode, paused publication for a majority of its verticals and as a consequence, let go of most of its people. The whole ride was pretty much over by September.

All in all, I spent 40% of the year in New York City and the remaining 60% of it in Asia. One day, you’re complaining about the subway service, the next, you find yourself stuck in Manila traffic. Those Manila/New York City cycles felt like a weird homecoming. You weren’t really missed. Both cities expected you to hit the ground running. The whole idea was good in theory, but I was surprised by how I relieved I was when I didn’t have to fly back to New York anymore.  It was time to embrace my new home.

We’re still settling. We have yet to move into a new apartment, and we have to find a new school for Max. We found jobs. We’re surrounded by family. We’re discovering new things about the city that has changed so much since we left. It’s good to be back.

Running

2018 was my biggest running year yet, breaking last year’s record 1310 miles to hit a new high of 1503 (approximately 2400 kilometers). I even managed to put in some good mileage in the first quarter, thanks to a mild New York winter. When I first arrived in Manila sometime in April, I took a while to acclimatize to the heat and humidity, opting to run indoors instead.

But I did go places, from doing hilly loops in Alabang to relaxed runs by the sea. Looking back, I realize I’ve been running almost consistently (save for a brief adult dodgeball detour) for 12 years. I remain thankful for the fact that I haven’t really had any serious injuries and while my enthusiasm for the activity wavers, I still find time to lace up and go for a run. I’m just happy I’ve kept a sport for this long. Who would’ve thought?

Chicago

Thought I was done with marathons after New York in 2010. But with the birth of my eldest, quitting tobacco and the discovery that I could log more miles in a week (with great results in terms of speed), I ran my second marathon in Chicago.

After a grueling 12-week training period, mostly by myself, I set a new personal best with a 4:07 marathon. I originally wanted to do a sub-4 but was quite happy with the results nonetheless. It’s still a 45-minute difference from my previous PR.

The race itself was wonderful. It had almost the same energy as New York, but a fast and flat course. It was also well organized and I particularly appreciated the Biofreeze (a.k.a. American Salonpas) stations along the course. While it drizzled on the first half with high humidity, I was pretty relaxed as I breezed through the miles. Unlike my previous marathon, I didn’t hit the wall at all. I guess the Gatorade chews worked, and the previous night’s Thai fried rice helped as well.

I enjoyed Chicago so much that I may just embark on a journey to do 5 out 6 majors. I’ll take it slow, but I don’t plan to wait nine years in between marathons.

Eats

Having spent a significant amount of time in two food cities, 2018 was one of discovery. I managed to explore more of New York, thanks to my transient housing situation, and I’ve been able to enjoy Manila’s vibrant restaurant scene.

New York will always be my favorite city for food (I am half right and half biased) and this year I tried so many things for the first time such as West African food, primarily driven by my curiosity to try Jollof Rice (very, very good). In October, I dragged a couple of friends to check out this Georgian resturant in Alphabet City. I’d been dreaming of trying Georgian Khachapuri and boy did it not disappoint. It was everything I imagined it to be. We ate it with some dumplings and Chkmeruli, a dish I hope to replicate here in Manila, paired with nice crusty bread.

I also had a brief love affair with Nepali cuisine. Thanks to News Deeply’s proximity to Curry Hill, I was a regular in Dhaulaguri Kitchen where I would often eat by myself, ordering a plateful of Momos AND getting a Buffalo Sukuti Thali with unlimited basmati rice. I was quite depressed to eventually learn that they had to shut down their Manhattan branch.

On the Mexican side of things, I discovered a little Antojitos cart near the office and I lined up for their Arroz con Huevos y Saliccia served on a Taco. Living by myself in New York for a few weeks also meant having the time to trek all the way to Jackson Heights to finally try Colombian Bandeja Paisa. God, it was so good. My one-month stay in Prospect Lefferts Gardens in Brooklyn also meant that I had access to Peppa’s Jerk Chicken, a dish I would bring to potlucks in Manhattan.

On the healthier side of things, when that Nancy Silverton x Sweetgreen chopped salad came out in April, I was practically there almost every day.

Once I began staying in the Upper East Side, I kind of went overboard with Pye Boat Noodle, a neighborhood Thai joint with origins in Queens. I used to order their noodles, but I eventually just kept things real and ordered their crab fried rice. This dish gave me so much comfort and made me excited to travel to Bangkok a few months later (more on that bit). This was, without a doubt, my dish of the year.

My time in the kitchen was significantly limited. I had a kitchen I could call my own for only two months, and save for the occasional request from my in-laws to prepare something at home (which I eagerly welcomed – sometimes to a fault), it made me realize how cooking has become such a big part of my life and how much I miss it.

But yes, we find ways to scratch that itch. A short Bangkok trip provided the opportunity to attend one of those touristy (but good!) cooking schools in the city. Bangkok Thai Cooking Academy’s program was perfect – you choose from a list of dishes you’d like to cook (you get to make five all in all) and you prepare them in rapid succession in an airconditioned kitchen. It begins with a token market tour but once you get to the kitchen, everything comes pre-prepped (say at 80%) and all you have to do is go about your business in the wok. I was blown away by how convenient the whole thing was. Anyway, I ended up making Pad See Ew, Yum Woon Sen Salad, Black Pepper Beef, Banana Fritters and probably my favorite of the lot, Khao Soi.

I made some No Knead bread in Manila just to remind myself of how easy it is to make. I also tried to recreate the Thai dishes at home, with limited success. I invested in a couple of 1-inch wide skewers to make homemade kebabs. My friend Melissa’s cast-iron paella is such a crowd pleaser that I made it multiple times (thanks to bags of Vigo rice that we brought back from New York) and turns out New York Times’ Persian Fried Chicken recipe is quite possible to make in the Philippines (hint: dried mint? it’s just mint tea!).

I’d like to cook more at home. I can’t wait to have my own kitchen.

Music

It never fails. I always compose this annual essay with the notion that it was a bad year in music. But the more I unpack what I listened to in the past year the more I realize that it wasn’t bad at all. Still a big year for Scandinavian pop. While I didn’t enjoy new stuff from artists from the past years, there’s a new crop of pop singers that made up for everybody’s else’s sophomore curse.

This year’s guilty pleasure was Silk City/Dua Lipa’s banger “Electricity” that proved too good to resist. I don’t know man, I just like piano-laden, 90s-esque house music. This song helped me power past the 16th mile during the Marathon, it’s good and indulgent. Just the way I like it.

Speaking of music, wow Last.fm actually fixed things! Nice to see (free) reports back in the fray.

Productivity & Apps

I’ve fully transitioned my design workflow to Sketch (and no, I’m not considering Figma anytime soon) and I had no reservations canceling my Adobe Creative Cloud subscription. I also canceled my Basecamp 2 account after using it (heavily, at times) for seven years. I find myself spending less on apps compared to a year ago. It’s nice to downsize.

I still can’t quit Evernote. There’s way too much stuff connected to my account, which includes downloads of all my US bills via FileThis, cloud syncing with my Scanner Pro app. Evernote attempted to introduce a new app, but it didn’t really change things. Since then, I’ve become a fanatic Notion.so user, which is something Evernote could’ve been in a parallel universe. Notion provides me with enough flexibility to create documents with special layouts. It’s such a wonderful multi-platform productivity tool.

I’ve long recommended Day One for journaling, which I primarily use for memory augmentation. I’m glad that I’ve kept this up for three years now and as I enter my fourth year of journaling, all the investment in writing a daily entry is paying off via its “On This Day” feature. It’s so nice to see how much can change in a year. Augmented memory does compound!  

Slack remains to be the most dominant app in my life, with over 142 hours logged last year. 

I reduced time on Facebook from 111 hours in 2017 to just 10 hours in 2018, something I deliberately decided on when I started the year. I subjected my algorithm to a horrible diet through the years and it made me realize that it’s no longer the fun place we had in 2007. I’ve started to feel less happy after visiting the site. I had to cut it out. But not quitting it altogether since so much of my livelihood is dependent on running ads on the network (I know) and it’s still a great way to chat with people. Thankfully, I can go to messenger.com and do my thing there.

There are greener communities of interest out there and Facebook’s just not doing it for me. And maybe it’s time for people to start weaving their own communities again? Can we make Flickr a thing again? 

Gaming

I don’t know what possessed me to get a Nintendo Switch at the beginning of the year. I originally thought about getting a console only because I have a son that I’d like to eventually play games with (true story) and it’s been more than a decade since my last. So one cold January day, I dragged Max with me to Best Buy to get a Switch. I ended up getting Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild as my first game, as recommended by a store employee. 

It made me fall in love with gaming again. As my first Zelda title, I didn’t know what to expect. Everything about it was such a great experience, from exploring the kingdom of Hyrule by horse and good ol’ fashioned mountain climbing to solving puzzles found in over 120 shrines (I completed all of them). BoTW kept me company in the months my family was already in Manila. Finishing the game was bittersweet. It was 350 hours well spent.

 

Since then, I’ve tried my hand with other games. The only other thing that kept me engaged, despite my relative lack of skill in it, was Fortnite. It took me a while to get over my fear of sucking until I realized that it’s actually okay to be mediocre at it. Sure, you can hate hate it, but for the most part, it’s really a game where people hang out. Of course, I don’t really have a lot of gamer dad friends into this game, but it was nice racking kills with a random squad of people ranging from 4 to 50. And when they sold the Technoviking emote on the app store, I knew I had to buy it.

Other games of note include Mario Kart 8, Overcooked, Smash Bros Ultimate and of course Skyrim on the Switch. I wish I had more time to play, but I’m just thankful I have time to play in the first place! But if you feel like a lapsed gamer as I did a few years ago, go get yourself a Switch and play Zelda. It’s a great gateway drug to gaming.

Books

This year’s book lineup was a bit of a mixed bag. There were some books that I read because of the reviews (read: you can’t entirely trust them) and some I read because it gave me a break from the whole single-word-titled-book-on-this-“surprising”-scientific-study (what do you even call this genre!?). It wasn’t my best reading year, but I had to power through.

I discovered Jackie Parry’s writing on my once active Amazon Prime Reading account. Hey, it’s a book about cruising so why not give it a shot. I liked her “This is It” book so much that I read her first memoir “Of Foreign Build” a few books later. Her books provided me with a nice dose of escapism.

Other notables include David Sedaris’ Calypso, which made for some light reading on my commute from my apartment to the office, and Porter Erisman’s “Six Billion Shoppers,” also a great read on the emerging market e-commerce scene.

It was also a surprisingly good year for work-related nonfiction. I found “Interviewing Users” by Steve Portigal and “Product Management in Practice” by Matt LeMay extremely helpful for product work. In fact, I could go to say that Matt Lemay’s book was my read of the year. Maybe I did save the best for last.

I also gravitated towards grifter-themed books. I was entertained by John Carreyrou’s “Bad Blood” and Tom Wright & Bradley Hope’s “Billion Dollar Whale”, often leaving me amused and shocked at times. I can’t wait for the Anna Delvey book to complete my trilogy. There should be one.

I think I’ve had it with these nonfiction fads. Even this year’s roster of Scandinavian books, with “Päntsdrunk” and “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning”, bored me. I expected more exposition on the subject matter instead of making it embarrassingly tongue-in-cheek. I don’t know, maybe I’ve outgrown its utility. I almost gave up on “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck” because of its self-indulgent writing style, while Yuval Noah Harari’s “Homo Deus” was not as good as his first book.

Since I don’t have much of a commute in my new life in Manila, I experimented with a couple of audiobooks to see if it’d stick. Having lived in NY meant that I still had access to my NYPL account with Overdrive support. Combine this with the library chrome plugin and I can check if an ebook or audiobook was available. All in all, I listened to three ebooks, most of which were good! Maybe I’ll do more of that this year. It still counts! And it’s going to be good for my long runs.

Content

I think I’ve pretty much normalized my media diet. I’m not much of a consumer of the moving image, but I still had a chance to watch almost all of the essential ones on the plane. “Incredibles 2” was great;  with “Fallout,” Mission Impossible continues to be one of my go-to movie franchises; I loved, loved “Isle of Dogs” while “Avengers: Infinity War” didn’t excite me at all. I loved the humor of “Spider Man: Homecoming”.

As for TV, well, I don’t choose shows deliberately. I just co-watch with friends and my wife. I liked some episodes of Chef’s Table and Samin Nosrat’s “Salt Acid Fat Heat”. But I can’t, for the life of me, remember anything else remarkable from 2018.

But yes, games, books, my Instapaper backlog – these I can get behind. I also developed a newsletter habit in 2018- I eagerly await emails from Quartz’s “Obsession”, Ben Collins’ spreadsheet nerdery, NYTimes’s Cooking, Smarter Living and Running and Shane Parrish’s Farnam Street Newsletters. Of course, it’s a bit of a pain to read in Gmail. Maybe I should create a dedicated newsletter address? 

It was also a great year for Podcasts, and the Times raised the bar originally set by NPR. I thoroughly enjoyed “The Daily” by Michael Barbaro, Rukmini Callimachi’s Caliphate, “How I Built This” by Guy Raz, Bobby Lee’s TigerBelly, NPR’s Planet Money, and Track Changes by Postlight.

There’s so much great content out there, and you don’t need an algorithm for this. I trust the people I follow on Twitter a lot for media recommendations, something I never get on Facebook.

The Asian Internet

Moving back to the Philippines also meant dealing with a new technology ecosystem, which, I can say, is just as vibrant as North America. While the Philippines still has a lot of catching up to do many of the services we grew accustomed to in New York have an equivalent here, more or less. This was clearly evident with Lazada, the now Alibaba-owned e-commerce site that probably has a larger marketplace than its US counterpart. I’ve long wondered about how decent last-mile delivery was with a site of Lazada’s scale and I was really impressed (and you don’t even need to sign up for a service like Amazon Prime). With this discovery, I’ve managed to buy some electronics, even obscure kitchen stuff. The price is a mixed bag but I’m generally fine with it. As for ride sharing, I find Grab- the Asian Uber- quite a joy to use with its loyalty program and other perks. The downside of Grab is you can’t really hail one when you desperately need it, like say Makati on a Friday night. Zomato is also better than Yelp as a directory but not so as a trusted source of reviews, as it seems to be overrun with food blogger types (which the platform inherently rewards). It does have Zomato Gold, which I was thrilled to sign up for. Postmates, a service I didn’t really use in New York has an equivalent in the form of Lalamove, useful for running small errands for ridiculously cheap rates. Booky’s a limited alternative to OpenTable but I don’t really see myself using the app that often.

So what do I miss? Not a lot actually. Maybe Fandango for movie tickets? There could be one out there, I just haven’t checked. As for Seamless’ Philippine equivalent Foodpanda, I haven’t ordered from them yet. Honest Bee is also a thing here in Manila, but I was never into the whole Instacart business. I like going to the market. Oh, I know what I miss. I miss ordering prescription refills from my phone, but that’s not really a dealbreaker for me.

The only thing that frustrates me is the apparent iffiness of the Internet. Which is already a given. LTE can be fast at times, just a bit spotty in areas outside of Manila. Home internet is something else- no surprises there.

Learning Better

I consume a ton of insights and information on a yearly basis and I’m starting to feel a tad insecure over how much I retain. I tend to compensate by using the cloud as an external brain and as I continue to evolve my own personal knowledge management framework, I’m now trying to wrap my head around the retention and learning bit. Where is my single source of truth?

I’ve always likened reading to Highlander’s the quickening. One should feel more informed and empowered after finishing a book or even an article. To make up for this, I’ve developed a couple of things that help me process everything. For one, I’ve learned to embrace the speed and tactility of writing my notes on loose paper and then encoding them on a notion.so page every Friday. I then refer to the same note on a Monday to make sure I don’t drop the ball on anything. As for all the articles I save on Instapaper, I created a simple IFTTT task that saves all of my highlights into a Trello board aptly named “Accumulated Acumen” – drawing inspiration from Jackie Parry’s “Cruiser AA” book. I then use a simple monthly framework to go through my notes to refresh my memory. Readwise, an app designed to remind you of all your Kindle highlights more or less does the same thing, but in email form.

I tried, a few years ago, to build a commonplace notebook in Evernote but that too was a lot of work! I should iterate on this more.

Looking Ahead

As I look back on everything that happened in 2018, I find myself in familiar territory, even though a lot of things have changed. My family’s adjusting well to their new life in Manila. Max is thriving in school and making new friends. Oz, on the other hand, just celebrated his first birthday and is growing up fast. Rica is back in advertising and appreciates the strong ecosystem of friends and family for our children. We are all benefiting from our little village here in Manila. As we continue to make Manila “home” again, we could sure use all the help we can get.

2019 is going to be one of continuity. I’d like to think we’re still in a transition period. In order to move forward, we have to build a home first.

P.S. Did I tell you about this time where a couple of movers stole my wedding ring?