Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Making 2020 Hindsight: Reflections, Recommendations and Running

For the first time in probably 40 years I did not have a seat on an airliner in 2020. Each year, I'd expect to travel to the UK at least once to see family and trips to Europe and other sundry trips in the US would round out my normal travel schedule. In December 2019, I had just returned from a trip to London not realizing it would be a long time before I was back, and I already had firm upcoming travel plans for Florida and Seoul. I've had years where I've overdone my travel, such as the three years I commuted to Oxford (which turned out to be a complete waste of time), but I realize now how much I miss air travel even if to places I have visited frequently. Of course, perspective is important: The planes and the places will be there in the coming months (and years) and it's a small consideration given the plight we are in due to COVID. The PND household's circumstances are hardly catastrophic and I am more than comfortable with the restrictions and it is stunning to me how many people believe they are above even simple sacrifices. Even the people making the rules!

As a by product of the above I took perhaps a quarter as many photos (400) in 2020 than in a normal year. Notably many fewer photos of New York (and none of London). I spend decent amount of time in arm chair travel looking at my past photo collections.

When gyms closed in March I was still of the mind that COVID wasn't a big deal and I was at the gym the day before they all closed. Within days, my attitude radically changed as the NY news reported on the body bags being carried out to mobile refrigerator trucks. So the gym was off limits which meant outside exercise was the only viable option and I upped my running game. I track my running activity and in a normal year I usually run between 1000 and 1100 miles. In the past 24 years of diligently tracking my running, I've run as much as 1,200 miles and as few as 500. 

In 2020 I ran 1,400 miles - which is a lot! My goal next year will be a little less but if I do it I will have run 25,000 miles in 25 years. But don't be intimidated because I get slower and slower as the years go by and each year more and more other runners pass me. Occasionally, I'll get a friendly wave from a cute girl who I know is thinking that "it's nice to see the old guys out here." Cold bothers me less than when I was younger but as you get older it is harder to deal with the heat. Bodies can't cool down as quickly as you get older. I am not entirely sure if I will ever go back to New York Sports Club.

As a consultant, working from home is often the norm but had it not been for COVID I would have been spending some time each week in a client office. I miss this more than I would have anticipated and the casual conversation, connections and serendipity that are always part of the work environment is very difficult to create in Zoom. I do think workers will continue to adapt and evolve to this new model but I don't see businesses continuing to be fully online once the restrictions are lifted. COVID will have a lasting influence on work conditions and experiences leading to more flexible arrangements and benefits for both employers and employees. I think it will be more incremental than revolutionary. Dry cleaners will struggle though.

Despite the lack of commuting, there wasn't a lot of extra free time. Placing a m/in/law in care and fixing up her house for rental in the middle of a pandemic didn't help. Mrs PND also spent a lot of time saving democracy with phone banking and writing postcards. I think it helped.

In most years I will read 20+ books a year and this year was similar; however, I read more non-fiction in 2020 than in other years. In December 2019, I was wandering around Politics and Prose and resolved myself to read more political history during 2020. I achieved this and read about Henry VIII, FDR, Grant, Carter, Churchill and others. I interspersed these books will my more normal roster of espionage and crime books. My five favorite books this year were:

About the first year of Churchill's prime ministership, the book interested me because it added in a lot personal history about the personalities and relationships of the people surrounding WSC at this time. I've read some of Martin Gilbert's biography of WSC but this book - by no means as detailed - filled in some gaps. I have many mixed feelings about Churchill and see the American infatuation with him as distinctly odd. Later in the year, I read FDR (below) and it was interesting to read about the same time period from FDR's perspective.
Alter's book is engaging and really well written. He clearly likes Carter but he is also critical about the President which leads to a balanced and interesting narative. My family came to the US in 1977 and we had watched news reports and election news during 1976 from an external perspective. Carter to me was the peanut farmer and little more. As the late seventies progressed my impressions of Carter as a failed leader were cemented and like many others I saw the comparison with Reagan a stark. As it turns out, Carter by many criteria, was one of our most effective Presidents with many initiatives which were either (or both) ahead of his time or long in impact. By chance, one of my last 2020 books was a fictionalized espionage story of the Shah's downfall which also played large in Alter's book.

I read a review of this book in The Economist and as a fan of Conrad, I thoroughly enjoyed the book. Jasanoff places Conrad in context which adds scope and perspective to many of the titles he wrote.  Later in the year, I also read King Leopold's' Ghost about how the King of Belgium carved an empire out of central Africa. In the latter book, there are many references to Conrad and Heart of Darkness which aided my understanding of both stories.

This book is long and while comprehensive and well written I thought it was a light read. JE Smith is well known for this book and while I enjoyed it, I thought it was more an appetizer than a full blooded investigation of one of the most successful US presidents. As a side note, as outrage grew over trump's supreme court appointment and calls to pack the court accelerated, one of the more interesting sections of this book concerned FDR's court packing scheme and how it torpedoed his mandate. What a powerful personality. It was a tragedy how his doctors ignored is health issues. With better care he would have lived far longer.
The last in the Cromwell trilogy, I hope Mark Rylance comes back to film this book as well. I enjoyed this book but found it labored at times. Mantel is such a master of language that it is difficult to criticize but I thought the first two titles seemed to flow easier than this one. Perhaps it was because of the inevitable outcome. It is still a compelling story.


If interested, here are my books on Librarything.

The ability to binge video and tv shows has been one of civilization's greatest inventions. To be untethered to the network schedule and eliminate advertising in the process is real progress! Some highlights this year included:

Call My Agent - Based around on the offices of a french film star agenting business. (Netflix) 

Better Call Saul - Possibly the best written show on tv at the moment (AMC)

Marvelous Mrs Maisel - Housewife turned comedienne (Amazon)

Rake - Australia show which follows the antics of an unconventional attorney (Netflix)

The Queen's Gambit - About chess (Netflix)

After Life - From Ricky Gervais about a widower. (Netflix)





For more see my year end newsletter.

Looking forward to a better 2021.

Michael Cairns is a publishing and media executive with over 25 years experience in business strategy, operations and technology implementation.  He has served on several boards and advisory groups including the Association of American Publishers, Book Industry Study Group and the International ISBN organization.   Additionally, he has public and private company board experience.   He can be reached at michael.cairns@infomediapartners.com

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