January 2023: Novelty in Past and Future
I might be a month behind.
Whoops, it’s March already and I never sent out my February edition. Well, here it is — there’ll be another one this month (hopefully) when I get to recapping February. I considered combining the two months, but it seemed like it would stretch too long. January was a fun month, and it was actually nice to reflect on it again after some time.
Three things this month: one of old stories told anew, one of new stories to be written, one of old stories seen anew.
A long multi-part video essay about sports
The Bob Emergency: a study of athletes named Bob, Parts I and II
I recently discovered the work of Jon Bois, an American sports writer and video producer, who makes some of the most compelling sports content on the internet by combining data and sports history to create compelling narratives and content that reminds me why I love sports so deeply. He brings both a sense of humor and a sentimental appreciation of the inherent humanity of sports culture that makes it so popular and engaging for so many people.
And so, I ended up watching over 90 minutes of a documentary by him focusing on the history of different athletes named Bob in American professional sports over the years. It was filled with strange and touching moments, like the story of a man named Bob Cyclone, a boxer in the 40s and 50s who fought 13 times and lost every single time. Bois mentions that this man was relentless, returning night after night to get clobbered for reasons that we’ll never know because of records lost to time. One Bob received more attention than usual, one Bob Gibson, who so thoroughly dominated baseball as a pitcher one year that they had to change the strike zone and lower the pitching mound by five inches. The story itself is incredible, and Gibson’s performance was even more so, but Bois brings it all together with a single line that leaves you awestruck. “Throughout his entire life, absolutely nothing and nobody on Earth could stop Bob Gibson, so they moved the earth itself. And that didn’t work either.
Watching these videos, which largely are made up of archival photos, graphs, and data visualization, I never expect to get emotional, but I always end up feeling a little overwhelmed with emotion. Bois has this incredibly deep love for humanity that appears in his appreciation of the stories everyone researches. Despite the subject, he brings humor but he brings such a powerful appreciation for the human spirit that it’s impossible to disregard any of them as just another sports story. Again, I have to defer to his own words — the closing line of the essay:
“If there’s a lesson, it’s that there are no dull stories. People are full of wonder. No matter how you study our history, you will always, always find it.”
Listening to a DJ set at the highest point in the city
Closessions Kickoff at Mt. Davidson
I’d started to get to used to my day-to-day life, so I decided to do something about it by going to a DJ set on Mount Davidson, the tallest point in the city of San Francisco. My friends and I parked on the wrong side of the trailhead and had to trudge up a steep trail to find our destination, breathing heavily as a subtle thump thump thump resounded through the trees. And then, we were in front of a small table crowded with CDJs and speakers, a small crowd donned in puffers and Patagonia swaying to the music. Looking past the table, you could see an incredible view of the entire city — a rare clear day for a city that loves its blanket of fog.
It was a memorable day, which felt in contrast to the monotony of most of my days, most of my weekends. I knew I’d remember it for a while and would thus make my life itself feel fuller than it had beforehand. The more memories we can recall, the less the days blend together, the longer we live. It was this day that reminded me that I could live a life of a hundred years that could feel meaningless if I didn’t fill the days with novelty and joy. I could spend my days in safety, always at home and never leave my comfort zone, and I could look back and see nothing at all but the four walls. I guess I saw more than just the view of the city that day.
Re-reading my favorite book
Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill
In January, I read this book for the third time in four years. Since it’s a short novel at 179 pages, in previous readings, I’ve sped through the book, finishing it in a day or two without stopping, unable to put it down at all. This time, I sought to slow down and read it with a more focused eye. I decided I would harken back to my time in high school literature class and read with a pen, marking passages and writing marginalia (jottings in the margins).
Funnily enough, I only started to think about rereading a book as a serious undertaking when I read a piece by Jenny Offill (the author of Dept. of Speculation) exploring how her consistent re-readings of Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf brought her a lifetime of lessons.
To make things even more meta, she quoted Virginia Woolf writing about re-reading Shakespeare:
At each fresh reading one notices some change in them, as if the sap of life ran in their leaves, and with skies and plants they had the power to alter their shape and colour from season to season.
My first reading of this book came from a recommendation from a blog, on a list of short but great books. I wanted a quick read and found it on my library app. I proceeded to finish it in a single sitting, felt deeply affected by it, and recommended it endlessly to anyone that would listen. I left this review on Goodreads in December of 2020:
i’ve never wanted to fall in love so much and so little, have a child so badly and not at all
i’ve never read something quite like it
I came to the book on this reading feeling lonely and isolated from my excessive caution around COVID, looking to identify with how the author explored those themes. And explore she did, with such deftness and skill. In this work, Offill manages to capture every possible human emotion within flashes of thoughts and feelings and quotes and research and history and neuroses and screams. I could see myself in the protagonist’s anxiety about the world, her attempts to understand it through the acquisition of knowledge and the way that none of it really seemed to work properly to fix things. The way she showed that only going through life lets things work out.
The part that haunts me:
Grow old with me. The best is yet to be, say the cards in the anniversary section.
But there are other lines from Yeats the wife keeps remembering.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
Things fall apart.
The line that I can’t forget:
What Keats said: No such thing as the world becoming an easy place to save your soul in.
The line that made me feel better:
“I am alone,” her student says. “Everyone is tired of this. No one will come anymore.” But Lia is only twenty-four. She is beautiful and brilliant. There are so many more years when people will come.
It’s still a perfect book and annotating it was nothing like my experience in high school, where I felt compelled to underline and comment about something on every page in case I’d be graded on it. Instead, I took the time to research the references I didn’t understand, get a sense of how widely she had to read and collect quotes to make the story work, fill it all in. I kept taking notes about all of the authors I needed to read after and that I’ll eventually get to. I kept wondering if I could ever be this knowledgeable and write to touch someone’s heart like she does.
With each read, the problems faced by the protagonist feel realer and more familiar, as I move through life and experience more of what she has. I must return to this book again and again, just to see what I see in it will change.