2020: A Year in Review

Oh, boy.  Where do I even begin? 

“Unprecedented” is starting to lose its novelty. The past few years have given us new climate records, a bull run with no signs of stopping, and a polarized Internet.  It’s as if things are getting lower and soaring at the same time. 
Saying that the world is changing is already a misnomer. The human race has gone through a lot. It’s getting harder and harder to keep up. 

Oz contracting Dengue early in January. It was a tough start to the year.

2020 will go down in history as one of “those” years. It was a year marked by disruption and tragedy. As with any situation, something good should (at least) come out of it. It makes you wonder though, at what point do we tell the world to pause and think things through? 

And we haven’t talked about this once-in-a-lifetime pandemic yet. 

The Pandemic 

March. Rumors of an imminent lockdown announcement by the government. Upon confirmation, I attended an emergency meeting at work to discuss next steps. We packed our bags and headed home to our families. 

It was a pretty uncertain time. Reliable, practical information was scarce.  We didn’t know how to react to a situation that was unraveling in real-time. We decided to move in with my in-laws in the suburbs and ride things out there. We bought as much food as we could. Grocery shelves ran out of bread. Everyone downloaded Zoom and MS teams. N95 masks left over from January’s volcanic eruption were ready to be worn again. 

An almost-empty pasta shelf.

Needless to say, the initial lockdown wasn’t enough. It kept getting extended in two-week increments. Things eased up a bit when the effect on the economy was too hard to ignore. Still, things were far from normal. We accepted our fate, our way of life altered by this event. This is the “new normal.” 

An empty Skyway, northbound.

We’ve been fortunate to remain untouched by the virus. But it’s definitely out there, affecting friends and family, leading to death for some. Super spreader events are common, brought about by family reunions and parties. The virus still looms. It threatens our fragility and if we drop our guard, everything can fall apart pretty fast. 

And then there’s fear and anxiety. I tested positive on a routine rapid test at work, inducing panic at home. I ended up taking a confirmatory PCR-test and got a negative result. The anxiety it caused was as real as it gets. 


Living in the new normal 

On some days, it feels like we’re living in a submarine. We’ve spent a big chunk of the quarantine (which is still in effect) inside our apartment. In this submarine, the living rooms serves as the main deck with direct access to our battle stations. My son goes to his desk to attend class in the morning, while Rica and I report to ours. The rest of the crew works in the kitchen and does the laundry. My youngest turns the whole apartment into a playroom. 

Oz attending remote classes.

Having worked for a couple of startups in a past life, I’ve had my share of working from home. But this is not your usual work from home experience. Your entire household are your de facto classmates and coworkers. You have to mark and optimize your space at home. At any given point, someone is shouting at their computer. Madness. 

We had the foresight to build a proper work area when we renovated our apartment. My wife and I have a table that that we’ve repurposed for work – we get to enjoy lots of natural light during the day too. We’ve invested in a proper printer as well, and it serves most of our needs, my sons’ coloring pages included.  I also invested in an entry-level Herman Miller chair, knowing I’d be on it for a big chunk of my day. It was well worth it.  

We’re lucky to have enough space to assign for work and non-work matters. The living room serves as the main convergence point for us (as it should be) as we observe communal lunch breaks. It’s easy to fall into a bottomless pit of work during the day. You have to draw the line between being “on” and going on a break. 

Rica and Max at home.

It’s hard. I can only imagine how hard it must be for other families without the means to carry on with their (now) digital lives. We’ve been lucky and are privileged. Either way, this whole pandemic has upended our lives in big and small ways. The new normal is here to stay. 


A lookback 

As I look back on the past few months, I’m relieved to have survived this pandemic. The time we spend with our children is priceless. Working parents should welcome this as a gift. Our family has gotten closer. I guess one can make lemonade after all. 

Attending a remote pickling(!) class in the early days of the pandemic.

I must admit, the first months gave us a bit of a shock. It made me ask hard questions about how I’ve lived my life. Now that vaccination’s underway, things could be back to normal soon. 

It’s going to be weird to pretend that this never happened. 

Running 

I wanted 2020 to be a great running year.  I had my eyes set on the Berlin Marathon, scheduled two weeks after my birthday. I could’ve welcomed my 40th with a full marathon, in a great city and add one more star in my quest to complete the majors. Speaking of which, I do have this goal of running five out of six majors. Boston is out of the question, I don’t have it in me to train for that. 

I managed to run in El Nido, Palawan. A few days before the lockdown. So that’s that.

It was a great plan. My backup, The Marathon du Medoc, was actually closer to my birthday. But it’s a fun race, with wine and foie gras along the course. I can do that that in my 50s. 

You sign up for these major marathons via lottery. I actually signed up back in 2019 but wasn’t lucky enough to get in. Since it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, I went with a tour operator instead. The operator took care of the hotel, race-day logistics and a guaranteed entry to the event itself. I was all set. Training was supposed to start in June. I was also in great condition, still fresh from last year’s Osaka Marathon

As soon as the pandemic hit, all the major races started dropping like flies. Runners, already anxious over the pandemic, had to worry about their plans for the year. I can’t imagine how London Marathon runners felt when it was canceled in April. It was a tough year for avid runners. We had no choice but to write it off. 2020 was a bust. 

Running in a lockdown

As I mentioned, we moved to the suburbs and stayed with my in-laws. Good, I thought, at least I could put in some outdoor runs. At the start of the pandemic, everyone had questions about safety: Do we have to wear a mask? Can we still go out to exercise and pretend that the pandemic doesn’t exist? 

It was a little bit of this and a little bit of that at the start. For one, we weren’t allowed to leave the house except for trips to the grocery. As soon as the government realized the value of exercise, they started easing some of the rules. But the damage had been done. I couldn’t believe I lost so much fitness after four weeks of inactivity. I had a hard time running a 5K. 

Running with a mask, even with a gaiter was a struggle.

Gyms were also closed. I had a gym membership for the sole purpose of running on treadmills. Now that I have to run outdoors, I’ve had to experiment with different kinds of masks. I ended up with gaiter but even that was uncomfortable. It’s all fun and games until your mask gets wet, forming a weird moist barrier between you and oxygen. 

By April, I’d had enough and bought myself a neat little folding treadmill. The treadmill, bought online, felt like a blind date. Malls were still closed, so there was no way for you to test them. The seller came through, delivering a huge treadmill at home. I was ready to log some miles again. 

I had to park the treadmill in the kids’ room.

I love treadmills. I’ve trained for marathons on treadmills. It’s also the best way (for me) to do speedwork. I can even go long distances with a treadmill (I managed to run half marathons on one). But it’s not for everyone. 

But wow, I was so out of shape. Even indoors. I tried to run at an easy 10:30/mile pace and still I struggled. I ended up with a slow 11:45/mile pace. It was heartbreaking and frustrating. I used to run at least 25 miles a week. At some point I was happy to complete a 5K. 

Consistency was the answer. It took me roughly 4 months to get into proper shape. But even that was still a far cry from February. It was quite a humbling experience. 

I’m still not at my pre-pandemic fitness level. The prospect of running an “easy” 15K long run sounds daunting. 
I guess I’ll do a 42KM when I turn 42. It was quite a frustrating running year for me. I had to look for another activity, something complementary and fun. 

Cycling 

In 2020, we stumbled upon a lot of things by sheer circumstance (or desperation). After the initial shock, we explore possible solutions around new normal problems. In my case, I needed a sense of normalcy in my running. Sure, I addressed this with a treadmill, but I needed something more. 

Throughout my cardio journey, I never fancied myself as a cyclist. I used to have a folding bike in New York and I used it for sporadic trips around the city, for a few hundred miles over the years. At one point, I sold my bike and settled on a Citibike, which actually did the job pretty well. It was a novelty, going out on bike rides on my way to work for some fresh air and a great view of the Hudson.  

I take pride in the sheer simplicity of running. All you need is a pair of proper running shoes (I go through two pairs a year on average). It’s portable, and a great way to exercise when traveling. It’s also cheap. I’ve had my running watch with me since 2016, a refurbished Garmin Forerunner 235 that I got for less than $200 on Amazon. 

Cycling is quite the opposite. First you have to get a bike. Then you have to get proper kit. You need padded shorts. You need a helmet. Gloves also help. Get a bidon. There’s way too much gear. 

As the pandemic raged on, cycling emerged as a compelling alternative for mobility. Cities started allocating space for cyclists on the road. Healthcare workers received bikes from donors. Meanwhile, people were getting restless, looking for ways to get out of the house and exercise. These were perfect conditions for the great bike boom of 2020. 

My friends took up biking sometime in June and July. I was jealous of friends who were already Zwifting back in March. At this point, I was still on the fence with this whole shtick. I wasn’t sure if the sport was for me. 

All it took was my brother. My nephew was into his mountain bike until he discovered the joys of motocross racing. As a result, he had a full-suspension mountain bike gathering dust at home. My brother asked if I was interested. Since we were staying in the burbs with access to open roads, I figured why the hell not. It was worth a shot. All I had to do was buy a pair of biking shorts. 

My nephew’s bike looked pretty complicated. It was a Merida 7.600 Full-suspension bike which had shock absorbers both in front and at the back. The shifters also looked kinda weird to me. How do you shift up and down? Why is the seat post dropping? What was this thing?!

The loaner bike in Ayala Alabang’s Bamboo Trail.

The term “like riding a bike” held true though. Soon I was taking the first few miles around the village, trying to see if things clicked. Shifting felt weird, only because it was unfamiliar. But the bike felt different. This might actually work. And I could breathe better with my gaiter.

The village was having a little cycling revolution as well. Volunteers converted empty lots and shared space into singletrack courses. Road cyclists, long a fixture in the community, came out in droves. 
It was fun. Open roads, better breathing, this could actually work! 

A few hundred miles later, I more or less realized what I want from cycling. Come September, I was already building a bike I could call my own. 

I don’t quite understand gravel bikes, which was and still is the bike du jour. You take the speed and lightness of road cycling but give it the ability to go off-road. Gravel bikes, in theory, can handle all road conditions. Coming from mountain biking, this made perfect sense to me. I wanted one bike to rule them all. Especially Philippine roads. 

My bike hunt started with the Specialized Diverge. It was a popular and reliable brand with good price points for their entry level bikes. But this was already August, all the value bikes were long gone. My “hunt” led me into an internet rabbit hole, which in turn showed me this cool video: 

Sold. Do they even sell it here? They sure do! And the bike shop is quite close to my apartment. Do they have it in stock? Yes! And in my size too. After a few days of mulling it over, I secured the frame. Things were starting to feel exciting! 

I completed my All-City Space Horse a month after buying the frame. It only took a while because I wanted to space out my expenses. I’m still not used to splurging on exercise-related activity. Again, this was me coming from the world of $100 running shoes. The bike was finally complete, and it did cost me a relative fortune. I got the GRX610 drivetrain alongside other components suggested to me by the shop. I still don’t understand bikes. I had to trust everyone’s recommendations while keeping to a certain budget. 

This bike has gone through so many changes and upgrades since September. I love it.

My bike looks and feels good on the road. I started cold, then increased my mileage while maintaining my running regime. It was pure joy. I made my first brave outing by riding from Makati to BGC via McKinley. This was soon followed by a 40KM ride on my birthday too. Everything took off from there. 

Since then, it’s been cycling milestone after cycling milestone. First it was a tour of Manila, climbing up Antipolo then a fun group ride towards the end of the year. 

I also reconnected with old friends whom I haven’t seen in awhile, even pre-pandemic. I met a lot of new people too, the same people who took up cycling in 2020. They’re all thriving and getting stronger at this newfound hobby. 

The Belominati, December 2020.

I’ve also learned so much about the bike and cycling in general, with a newfound appreciation for all the parts, even geometry, the culture and these nuances. The hobby remains to be expensive, but wow all this freedom is worth it. 
I also wear Lycra now. There’s no turning back. Cycling also made me hungrier. 

Eats

We limited our dining out since the lockdown happened. With a snap of a finger, restaurants we used to frequent closed, some for good. Food delivery apps served as our main conduit to the outside world. 

Pre-pandemic dining 2020 was good though. I discovered the joys of Maggi Masala paired with Samosas in Ricksha Streetside Tandoor in Kapitolyo. I’ve missed it since. I only started eating out in December and we were paranoid about taking our masks off in public. 

Maggi Masala forever. Ricksha Streetside Tandoor.

I have long lamented how I seemed to have lost my place in the kitchen since we moved back to Manila. We had someone preparing our dinner while we were away at work. This convenience made our lives easier so I’m not complaining. Cooking had to take a backseat. 

Still, we had to find food for the family. We started out a bit cold,  heating stuff ordered from all these sellers we found online. The early days of the pandemic felt weird, we were dining on survival mode. Even food sold at the drugstore was worth hoarding. The same applied for these online food sellers we’d find on Facebook Groups and messaging apps. We went through all the quarantine food fads during the pandemic: ube pan de sal, sourdough bread and sushi bake. There were some favorites too: Cheese Pimiento pan de sal and cookies from Sugarshack in Alabang, a lot of Shakey’s and lots of fried chicken. 

These food groups served as a vibrant lifeline for all things foodie. It was actually pretty great. We tried so many things. Aside from the usual fads, we discovered great home-cooked dishes. We ordered a lot of cheese pimiento pan de sal, fishballs from Tondo, ham from Binondo, and dishes from restaurants long known to be extinct. It was a smorgasbord of pandemic proportions. 

Once we got over the shock of the lockdown, I found my way back into the kitchen. I finally found time to make the things I’d been meaning to cook. My home cooking repertoire got interesting and at times, ambitious. Here are some dishes that I enjoyed, iterating until I got them right (and in some cases, wrong again). 

Stir-fried Tomatoes and Eggs
Pollo a la Brasa.
Kimchi Fried Rice.
Char Siu v1.0
Chkmeruli.
Oven-roasted Chicken Shawarma.

I’m a huge fan of Siu Mei and I love Char Siu the best. Char Siu, also known as asado in the Philippines, is pretty easy to make. Most of the ingredients are available, some exotic ones in Chinese groceries that have sprung up in Makati. The choice of meat does matter and after many attempts, I’ve decided that fatty pork shoulder is the best.  A thin layer of fat works well with a savory sweet glaze (like ham). I also learned that Maltose is kind hard to handle. It can get sticky! 

I also found time to make Chkmeruli, a Georgian Chicken dish I discovered in New York. Oda House was a restaurant in the East Village that served traditional Georgian fare. I went there for the Khachapuri but stayed for the chicken. I found a pretty simple recipe online and have made it many times. It’s now my favorite way to prepare roast chicken. It’s also simple. Mince criminal amounts of garlic, spatchcock your bird, then pour some milk on top. There’s not much to it. Everybody loves it. The Japanese also discovered the joys of Chkmeruli and are well on their way to make it their own. 

We also made a decent vodka pasta sauce that goes well with fresh pasta.  New York Times’ oven-roasted chicken shawarma found its way back to Manila. Our go-to stir-fried eggs and tomato made a huge comeback as well. We sure could use some comfort food these days. 

Music

What is the role of music in a pandemic year? While anxious over what was happening outside, music, like food, provided comfort. There are a lot of vivid memories attached to my 2020 soundtrack. I remember listening to TOPS’ “I Feel Alive” in an empty Skyway on a drive from Alabang to Makati. This song stuck with me, only because everything felt post-apocalyptic. I needed to contextualize the weirdness. Magdalena Bay’s “Story” made for good background music as I ate by myself in the apartment. Music added a layer of normalcy. 

My top tracks in 2020 were all over the place. Kacy Hill’s “I Believe In You” was calming. Jessy Lanza’s recent album was a lot of fun. Andy Shauf’s “The Neon Skyline” album introduced storytelling in music again. But there was no relative coherence in this. Not that I needed any. At this point in history, you go with what you like, what makes you feel better. 

And then you run with the tried and tested. Scandinavian pop is always good. The ones I’ve been following, Dagny, Marlene and Astrid S, all came out with catchy tracks. Disclosure’s “Who Knew” gave us some good ol’ garage. I listened to some French touch too and I like Latroit/Fred Falke’s “Hungover” the best. I liked some songs by Little Mix (“Holiday”), Cardi B (“WAP”) and Maggie Rogers (“Celadon & Gold”)

Then you revisit the old. Sonic Youth’s “Jams Runs Free” was essential cycling music and so was Jenny and Johnny’s “Big Wave”. I put Bonnie Raitt’s “Nick of Time” on repeat, figuring out the meaning behind the lyrics. I also went through a weird Kate Bush phase, because I needed “Wuthering Heights” in my life. I don’t know how this happened, but I also revisited Mark Morrison’s “Return of the Mack”. Again, it was a strange year in music. 
It wasn’t boring. Sometimes, you get into things you thought you’d never actually like. 


K-Pop 

We’ve had brief encounters with K-Pop in the past. It was either Blackpink’s “DDU-DU DDU-DU” or BTS’ “Boy With Luv” which we passed off as novelties. Like a toy. Besides, the kids love them.  

Then things lit up like dynamite. It was a normal September evening for us, in front of the TV, looking for random stuff to watch. We noticed a trending video from BTS. We watched it as a family and thought it was pretty good. Little did I know that this was the kindle igniting a fire in Rica. I guess her inner 15-year old woke up, ready for Army enlistment.

It’s not a story about me. It’s about how Rica developed an obsession with BTS. It started out with an appreciation for idol culture, then came biases, and comebacks. She ended up ordering two dolls of her favorite BTS member, V. Then she went deep in their discography. She found her fan community through her friends and some online groups. It was all amusing to watch from a distance. 

There are tales of K-pop widowers – men who have lost their wives to the allure of these gentlemen. I don’t mind this at all. It’s so nice to see people go deep into something they like. It results in a lot of nerds. And that’s a good thing. 
I’ve grown to like K-Pop too. It’s pretty good pop. There’s also an interesting connection between idol groups and Scandinavian producers and songwriters. I ended up listening to a lot of TWICE because I’ve long preferred girl groups. Their songs are a lot of fun and they’re cute. I find TXT’s “Blue Hour” very catchy. There’s a huge chance that I’ll go through the same path as my wife, age-appropriateness be damned. I guess we’re all 15-year olds inside. 
Then there’s the K-Pop machinery itself. They found a way to scale it. As a new fan, you gotta give it to them. Kudos to them for gifting humanity with a little bit of hope. 

Technology 

Society went through a collective digital transformation because of the pandemic. Everyone realized that a lot of things can actually function in a remote world. In the blink of an eye, humanity remapped their workflows to adapt to this new way of living. 

Teleconferencing apps like Zoom, MS Teams and even Google Hangouts had their moment. Zoom came out on top, thanks to relative ease of use and video quality. Even my 5-year old found his way around the service, attending his class through an iPad. Now everyone’s shouting at their computers. I’m actually surprised that it was Zoom and not Hangouts that took charge of the whole situation. I guess people wanted more features, or they liked the novelty of a new app for the new normal. Meanwhile, Skype’s still scratching their head, wondering where their market share went. 

I wouldn’t say it was game changing though. Nothing beats the serendipity and ambient collaboration in the workplace. But we made it this far, and I’d like to think people are as productive as ever. I can also see how this is a bad thing, with people getting Zoom fatigue. It’s a mixed bag, but as long as work hasn’t stopped, then I guess it’s a good thing for everyone’s sake. You just have to draw the line between work and personal time at home. 

All in all, I’ve spent a total of 162 hours for both Zoom and MS Teams, plus 15 for Google Meet. That’s 177 hours worth of video conferencing. My most used app remains to be my email client of choice, Airmail, at 127 hours. 

I logged over 98 hours journalling on Day One compared to 53 hours the year before that. I increased my daily word count from 400 words to 700. I guess I had more to say about the events of 2020. Well, there was a lot to share, so much stuff to process and so much to document. My journaling streak remains unbroken as of this writing. I haven’t missed a day since February 2016. That’s a lot of content people will never see.  Which is the whole point. 

Speaking of streaks, my MyFitnessPal log has gone beyond 1500 days. I thought it was going to be a fleeting thing but I kept at it.  MyFitnessPal is another way to further reinforce my external “memory”. You can tell so much about the food you eat on a certain day and I’ve got a lot of those days to remind me. I’m big on this whole second brain business, allowing me to vividly recreate some days. Down to the most minute details. 

It was also a huge year for Notion, with me setting up dashboards that are actually fun to use. It’s the swiss-army knife of personal databases and notetaking. I’ve built distinct habits incorporated all throughout the week. I use it now to track online purchases, my annual personal KPI dashboard and meal plans. I played around with verticalized DB apps like Paprika, but I still go back to Notion. Things are more accessible this way. While Notion is not a 100% replacement for unitasking apps, it can bring you 80% of the way. And that’s a pretty compelling reason to commit to it. 

Notion is far from perfect. They still haven’t resolved painful performance problems (it’s slow as molasses). There’s still no support for offline mode. It’s not much a dealbreaker yet. But enough of a concern to make me consider switching if a faster, comparable app comes along. This whole notes space might still be volatile. 

The Notion community’s also great. I’ve followed Notion experts and ambassadors, sharing best practices, template and formulas. It can be everything to everyone. I have no regrets moving my notes from Evernote to Notion. 

I still use Airtable for my personal and work database projects. It’s like a garden that you have water and tend from time to time. I’ve stuck to my inventory system – built in 2019 and now I log my grocery receipts for fun. It feels right to store all this data, knowing that one day, I’ll find use for it.  Absolutely nothing wrong with hoarding and codifying information.

Reads 

I made good use of my subscriptions to the Times and the Post, especially in the months leading up the US election. 2020 made me more connected to the news, I needed to make sense of everything. I did struggle a bit with my reading in 2020. My connection to literature was strained at one point, only because fact became stranger than fiction. Still, there were a couple of good reads in 2020 which provided a much-needed dose of escapism. 

My reading portfolio is pretty standard. A mix of popular psychology titles, some memoirs and a dash of culinary writing. Then the usual productivity, entrepreneurship and sporting books. It’s been this way the past five years. 
Then there’s grift lit. A strange non-fiction subgenre featuring tales of disproportionate success and the corresponding fall. This year, I added Reeves Wiedeman’s “Billion Dollar Loser” to my collection. A riveting read, it tells the story of Adam Neumann and WeWork from 2010 to 2019. 

The story struck close to home, I was actually there, in New York City, while this was all happening. It was 2011, seed funding was abundant and startups needed space. Office space was cheap too, thanks to a city still recovering from the financial crisis. Coworking connected these two together, creating an ecosystem that worked pretty well. These were pretty cool places too, they had spa water, and opportunities to network. 

I remember meeting up with new friends in the first WeWork along Grand Street. I met them through New Work City – my first coworking space when I moved to NY in 2011. WeWork knew that startups needed space. They also saw an opportunity to establish a monoculture of sorts. Everyone started talking about pivoting and the hustle. We all read Eric Ries’ “Lean Startup” and treated it like canon. They were at the forefront of the whole silicon anywhere movement. 

It was a time of venture-fueled growth. It also proved to be one hell of a drug for WeWork. Adam Neumann utilized his larger than life personality well enough to be a unicorn. But it also broke the company he built. The book itself wasn’t intended to be a warning, but a parable about unchecked capitalism. The incentive to do crazy big things will never go away. And some people do get away with it. 

Speaking of the New York startup scene, I’ve long been a fan of Prehype’s work so I bought a copy of their book “The Acorn Method”.  They do a lot of things, from working on their startup portfolio to corporate innovation. The book focuses on “Revenue Exploration Studios” – a model for building new scalable busines for large organizations. The same method worked so well for them, resulting in many exits and profitable businesses. I agree with their concept of creating a separate innovation organization in general. This new company should be free from the shackles of enterprise, whether it be IT or Finance. 

Of course, you’d still need support from the mother organization. The book has pointers on how to manage this symbiotic relationship, which can be quite tricky. As someone currently running an innovation unit in a big company, this was quite helpful.   There’s also a lot of expectation management involved in corporate innovation and the book provides a lot of help here. 

Building companies in a startup setting will always be appealing. But the prospect of building something in a bigger organization is much more complex. That makes it challenging and exciting. 

My activities influence my choice of reading. As expected, I gravitated towards cycling literature. Not only did it provide a healthy dose of escapism, but a lot of education on its nuances as well. Cycling is both simple and complicated. Chris Pountney, who circumnavigated the world by bike, came up with two good books. I enjoyed his books, “No Wrong Turns” and “Into the Sunrise”. Pountney is a gifted writer, his narration makes the whole journey quite entertaining. And his books were long! 

I also learned about the colorful life of Lin and Larry Pardey through the book “As Long as It’s Fun”. I’ve long been a fan of cruising books and I was so happy to have stumbled upon this. 

Other notable books in 2020 include “Make Time” by the “Sprint” guys Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky, “Ametora” by W. David Marx, which explores the history of American menswear in Japan, and “Lifespan” by David Sinclair, an eye-opener for me. Metformin is apparently the anti-aging pill we never knew we needed (up until we got Type 2 Diabetes). 

I also kept things fresh by reading a few unconventional books. I enjoyed Craig Mod’s “Kissa by Kissa”, a chronicle of the author’s epic walk across the Nakasendo road, sampling tons of Pizza Toast along the way. I’d love to do that one of these days. 

Gaming 

I haven’t had this much fun playing games since 2018 . My gaming device of choice remains to be the Switch. I’m so glad I have one of these things. 

I have no idea what I’m doing.

I started the year with a hard commitment to finally finish Pokemon Sword. Thanks to the pandemic, I finished the main storyline in 45 hours. This was my first “real” Pokemon game and I realized how deep this thing can get. I was never much of a Pokemon fan, as I find the gameplay a bit repetitive. The collecting bit was kinda fun, but I didn’t really make a connection with the game in general. 

After Pokemon Sword it was a struggle to find my next game. I tried buying a game here and there, even tried to give Skyrim another shot. I felt lost, opting to think about other things I’d rather do with my time. Except for exercise, I let my mood dictate the type of media I consume at the moment. It can be a movie on Netflix, Reddit, reading a book, or playing a game. 

I bought games like Just Dance, and Jackbox titles to keep us entertained. I bought a copy of Duke Nukem 3D for the nostalgia factor as well. Things weren’t clicking. 

Animal Crossing: New Horizons broke this dry spell.  The game fulfilled its promise of providing a calm and fun experience, which is what we needed back in March. The last time I played an Animal Crossing title was back in 2007, with my Nintendo DS Lite. I enjoyed it then and I still enjoy the franchise now. It’s cute and you get to build and make stuff. It’s no surprise that it thrived in a pandemic. 

Playing the stalk market.

But the novelty does wear off. And yes, it does feel like work on some days. Once you’ve expanded your house, you’re pretty much done. Still, it did its job well. I had to look for another game after a few weeks of playing. 

It all changed when I bought Hades back in September.  I didn’t know what to expect save for the fact that it was a well -reviewed roguelike. I flirted with the genre with Faster Than Light (FTL) a few years back and enjoyed it. Little did I know that I would end up having one of the best gaming experiences of my life (at par with Breath of the Wild). It was one of those rare gaming opportunities that happen every three years. I was playing a masterpiece. 

Just another day in hell.

A lot of critics would agree too, with major gaming websites declaring the same. But I’m not here for validation. Hades showed us what a roguelike game could be. They made good use of the core roguelike experience and added deep storytelling in the mix. It made me look at the big picture, ignoring frustrating runs in the process. The deep storytelling served as a solid backbone to the mechanic.  Zagreus leaving the underworld to see his estranged mother was so compelling. 

The game has everything. Rich voice acting, fantastic mechanics and a story worth following. The art direction was also superb too. It was a lot of gaming for $19.99, putting a lot of Triple A games to shame. 

It took me a few attempts to finish the game. After playing it for almost 200 hours, I still feel that there’s so much to experiment on and figure out. I’ll never forget my time in this world they created. 

I guess this also serves as a reminder that good, passionate people build quality games. All those freemium, pay to win games left a bad taste in my mouth.

This makes you nostalgic for a past where games were bought and finished. I am by no means a Triple-A gamer. Heck, I only have a Switch as my gaming device. This didn’t stop me from having such a great gaming year, thanks to studios like Supergiant. No gimmick, just great experiences. 

Election Year 

By November, I was bracing myself as a first-time voter in the US election. It’s been a crazy year for Donald Trump’s politics, and I felt that this was an opportunity to rise against it. 

I’ve lived through the chill Obama years and saw the rise of populism in 2016.  Since Trump’s election, we’ve never seen American exceptionalism at its worst. It didn’t help that social media further fueled polarization in society. I, for one, swung hard left at certain points, only because of what I read online.  We’ve also seen America make terrible decisions on climate change, social justice and immigration. It was the great undoing of Obama’s progressive vision, and it was frustrating to watch. 

We left America, two years into Trump’s term, fearing for its future. 

I would define my politics as center left, with a particular emphasis on the center bit of all things. I’m a sucker for systems, which some people call the “establishment”. No system is perfect, of course. But it does have the ability to optimize. I’m opposed to radical revolution. I’d rather focus on incremental gains. Policy wise, I’d rather things to be on the “just enough” side of things. 

I’ve applied this kind of philosophy in all aspects of my life. I’ll take 10% better than a risky 50% bet. Aggressive political treatments can backfire pretty fast. We’ve seen this happen throughout history in the form of fascism and populism. Look at what’s happened in the past four years. Where did this bring us? 

I do recognize that I’m privileged enough to tell people to wait, rather that demand change now. So there’s that bit too. 

But there is a need for urgent change. Actually, urgent action is more appropriate, because true change itself takes years. We need a leader who can steer the ship straight once again. We have to act on climate change, racial inequality and the wealth gap. 

This is why I aligned myself with Elizabeth Warren’s politics at the start of the election cycle. Ms. Warren has a proven track record, a great work ethic and a great framework on where to take America next. 

I was receptive to Joe Biden when he won the nomination. At this point, I just wanted a sense of normalcy in politics. I’m tired of checking Twitter for crazy presidential antics. I want things to be boring again. Joe Biden was the candidate for me. He seems nice, his policies aligned with what I thought constituted progress. I was happy when he named Kamala Harris as his running mate. I once considered her as my candidate too. 

Election day. I feared the prospect of having another 2016 shocker. It was a pretty anxious day too. I doubted myself and the polls. Maybe Trump’s America is the real America. Early in the night, it showed Trump leading Biden by a few points. My anxiety eased once mail-in ballots started coming in. It was all smooth sailing from there. 

I’m proud to have voted for the Democrats. I felt validated by the whole thing, it was time to move on from crazy politics. I look forward to visiting my adopted country post-pandemic. It may not have the same excitement of the Obama years, but I know things can only get better. America has this amazing ability to self-heal. 

Family 

Now this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience I can get behind. As mentioned above, I’m thankful that I managed to spend enough time with my kids at home during this pandemic. Pre-pandemic, my kids’ days were generally a mystery.  

Working from home gave me a glimpse of their lives. Sure, it’s a disrupted version of it but I’d still take this version over not seeing them at all on a normal weekday. 

I’ll remember all these memories we made at home. It’s the simple things. From assisting Max in his remote class, to making sure Oz’s stimulation levels are in check. It’s sad that they have to spend a big chunk of their toddler years indoors, but there’s nothing much we can do. We took the sensible (but painful) route in this case. On the flipside, our kids haven’t been to the mall in more than a year. This could also be a good thing. 

There’s still a lot of room for improvement. The pandemic found us turning to electronics as pacifying devices. Experts warn of an “epic” withdrawal period once things go back to normal. But screens have become a lifeline, a way for you to get a few minutes to yourself. It does come at a cost. 

Max became a gamer in 2020. So much so that he managed to finish Lego City Undercover in a few weeks without any help. Oz is still into animals (buses are so 2019). 

They’re definitely growing up. Max is turning into a chatty, sassy young kid. He can express his thoughts better. Meanwhile Oz is starting to get a bit naughty as well, but it’s generally funny and in good jest. They get on each others nerves too. But we’re talking about brothers here, with a two-year age gap. It’s bound to happen. 

I never thought I’d share the same office with Rica. It was weird at first but you get used to it. We’ve learned to build new routines to have some semblance of work/life balance at home. Just like my kids, I have a newfound appreciation and admiration for her work. Advertising is hard. Again, the pandemic made the invisible appear. 
It’s good to know that  our marriage can survive a pandemic. We took a lot of things in stride. 2020 was a team effort. 

The pandemic made me more empathetic to my family’s struggles in other aspects of our lives. If there’s one thing we learned from this, it takes a village, in a lockdown, to raise kids (and work on your marriage). 

Turning 40

I also turned 40 this year. This means I have 31 statistical years left in this planet. 25 of those years go to my productive working years, should I decide not to retire early. I’m not even sure if this is midlife or beyond it already.  As I hit this age milestone in life, I still have a lot of unfinished business. There’s still stuff to try and experience, risks I have to take, a nest egg to build and more to see and understand. It feels as if I’m still getting there. 
I’ve lived a colorful life. I graduated from college, got a job, moved to another country, got married, had kids, moved back. You can find the color between those milestones. Somewhere along the way, I ran (and now biked) thousands of miles, ate well and listened to great music. I also forged lasting relationships, pruning others along the way. I learned and unlearned a lot of things too. I fell in love with my craft. 

I couldn’t ask for more. I’ve been lucky.  

I was fortunate enough to celebrate my birthday with family in 2020. Hopefully, I get to celebrate more of these in the future. 

I now have 40 years of memories, with a big chunk of it well-documented. I’ve worked on my tech-enabled second brain for years and I’m reaping the benefits. I can relive the years for a few minutes a day. Of course, living in the present should always be the default. But a healthy amount of retrospection can put a lot of things in perspective. 
Digital memory is a hill I’m willing to die on. I’ve done a pretty decent job of extracting them, from diary entries, photos, foursquare checkins and the food I ate. I know this is a weird thing to be thankful for when I turned 40, but I wouldn’t be here if not for all things I did in the past. Life looks pretty sweet from my rearview mirror. 

Looking Ahead 

As I write this in 2021, one can’t help but feel an overwhelming sense of despair over the state of the world. The pandemic continues to ravage the world with the third wave unleashing its fury. 

I’ve been assigning “themes” at the start of the year. Back in January of 2020, I declared it as the year of adventure. It turned out to be an adventure, just not in the way we expected. 

2021 is going to be a year of renewal. It’s recommitting not only to life pre-pandemic, but to this new person I’ve become after the events of 2020. We have a unique opportunity to release a better version of ourselves. We have a chance to commit to better relationships, to others and ourselves. 

Everyone’s betting on a dramatic comeback, but I’m not seeing it now. The effects might last for a few more years. To be honest, it’s hard to plan ahead when things are volatile. We have to live life by the day. And that’s what people meant by the new normal. 

Hardcore incrementality is where it’s at. As mentioned above, modest growth is better in the long term. As a matter of fact, I reached my personal growth targets last year, despite everything. I should stay the course. I’m not anticipating any major life changes in the next few months. I guess that’s for the better. 

We just have to show up everyday. This means showing up at the kitchen, to your zoom call and in your home gym. Attend to your family, assist your son, be a good husband. These are all good things. 

Things will get more interesting. We’ll find ourselves on a plane, traveling to some place exciting. But even if things aren’t quite back to normal, we still have to commit to better versions of ourselves. 

META 

I thought I’d be able to finish this quick, under the assumption that I would have more free time to write. But it was quite the opposite. 

I’ve spent enough time in front of my screen during this pandemic that working on personal things felt like a chore. I thought the words would also come easily. But here I am, still struggling to put everything into writing. Suffice to say that this isn’t a comprehensive snapshot of my year. 2020 was both interesting, if not historic, and slow at the same time. 

I started writing this back in December 30, 2020. The writing process was more unstructured compared to previous years. I created a recurring task that kept nagging me at work. I wrote around 200 words on a typical day, some going beyond a thousand. I guess writing more on Day One (where I wrote 700 words on average) took away some of my writing juju. 

A lot of work goes into this thing and I have so much respect for people who do this for a living. I finally finished my shitty first draft on April 13, 2021. I ran everything through Hemingway, unsurprised at how bad it was. 
I still compose this essay in Dropbox paper. It’s easier that way.  

Travel! Hopefully soon.