Friday, January 1, 2021

NINJA STUFF: Author, Year Seven (2020)

Esteemed Reader, 2020... was a year.

Before I write one more word, I feel compelled to acknowledge right up front that I am blessed in ways it hasn't even occurred to me I'm blessed. I survived the year in relative comfort, considering the horrifying alternatives all around me. As of this posting, my family is healthy, our financial situation actually improved, and I got to chat with a bunch of amazing people on the podcast who even I couldn't believe agreed to come on the show:) If ever there was a year for me to have lived with gratitude, it was this one.

If I hadn't committed to writing these posts every New Years, I'd probably just be quiet this year. I'm not really writing this for those of you that lived through 2020. You know what it was like and many of you had a far worse year than I did. This is a post for future me, the me who may try to remember this year as an idyllic time as parts of it were indeed the best of times. But as a famous writer fellow once wrote, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times."

This year has profoundly and forever changed me in ways I haven't fully processed yet. A few months back, I was trying to turn left on a busy street, cars rushing by too close on my right. A truck coming the opposite direction very, VERY nearly hit me. The panicked look on the driver's face assured me he also thought this was it. After I made my turn, I parked and took deep breaths, trying to will myself to keep driving.

That's where I'm at in terms of processing 2020.


Let's ease into this post by first discussing the many wonderful videogames I played this year. When last we left our hero at the end of 2019, he was excited to have secured an excellent deal on a used Nintendo Switch Lite and hopeful about the year ahead. Well, I was right about the Nintendo:) That turned out to be a pretty prescient purchase as my childhood friends Mario and Link helped me maintain some calm through a lot of sleepless nights.

And God bless the good people at Ubisoft for Assassin's Creed Black Flag, and, later, Assassin's Creed Odyssey (3rd time through!) and, later still, Assassin's Creed Vahalla (I'm still stunned by its beauty). Special shoutout to the unofficial Assassin's Creed games I also loved, Ghost of Tsushima and Immortals: Fenyx Rising. I actually finished none of these games, but I played long stretches of them. You're doing the Lord's work, video game companies, and I couldn't have survived this year without you.

To the makers of my favorite video game of 2020,  Maneater: I love you and wish for a million sequels. 

Before I tell you anything more about my 2020, know that it ends with me receiving a Play Station 5 shipped to my home on November 12th, the first brand-new console I have ever owned on launch day in my life. I've always bought them used a year or two after release. I played Spider-Man: Miles Morales the day it launched like a member of the 1% and it was amazing (but sooo short). 

And should you think I left out The Last of Us Part II, I had some feelings on that breathtaking game. I enjoyed it, but I really hate Abby, and it wasn't nearly as fun as those Mario Remasters:

Usually, I include my favorite movies of the year in these posts, but since those mostly got canceled and I never list my favorite books, I'll just say I loved the movies I actually got to see: Borat Subsequent Moviefilm and The Witches were lovely and brightened an otherwise dark year. I loved the trailer for The Batman and Hans Zimmer's score for Wonder Woman 1984:)

I found TV mostly difficult to watch as storytelling in which I didn't partially control the pace left too much time for me to start thinking about all my 2020 existential dread. Still, I particularly enjoyed The Outsider, The Boys, and The Mandalorian. Better Call Saul remains the best thing on television.


2020 was a year spent mostly apart from the rest of the population, so it was a good year to be a reader and a gamer. If ever I doubt the trajectory of humanity is onward and upward toward greater excellence, let my slack-jawed expression as I played that sweetest of all Spider-man games with haptic feedback webs after thinking a mere Play Station 4 was the best human beings had to offer serve as proof: The future continues to arrive daily and it is glorious, despite being unevenly distributed.

It's important for me to remember that since events of 2020 dramatically lowered my estimation of my fellow humans. I once thought most people were inherently good and when educated and when presented with facts to lift them from their ignorance, they would alter their behavior accordingly.

2020 has recalibrated my idealism.

When I was still going inside grocery stores, every new aisle was a potential episode of terror as people routinely got too close, either not wearing masks, or wearing them improperly, and often glaring at me with malice that was absolutely intended. You scared, Snowflake? Dear Leader said the virus is a hoax and we believe him just as we believe in blond-haired, blue-eyed white Jesus. And you've decided to raise a brown child amongst us when "all lives matter" and "reverse racism is the real racism."

His mother and I got engaged in 2007, the year before Barack Obama was elected. This country seemed a much, much better place for us to live then. Imperfect, but hopefully improving.

I've a greater respect now for the madness of history. Future generations will hopefully not fully relate to the relentless assault of life under the flaming cross in the United States' front lawn that was Donald J. Trump. 73+ million of my fellow Americans cast votes for Donald "fine-people-on-many-sides" Trump, agreeing that four more years of continued inject-yourself-with-disinfectant-ha-ha-but-also-I-told-Bob-Woodward-I-knew-the-truth-all-along-and-I've-been-knowingly-INTENTIONALLY-infecting-the-country madness was somehow desirable.

I don't know how to process that information.

Let historians take note that the trauma of the Covid-19 pandemic wasn't just the disruption of our lives or the loss of family and friends or the economic turmoil, but living with the horrific knowledge that our government wanted to spread the disease among the population. We had to watch the United States crumble without any assurance it wouldn't collapse (knock on wood as we're a long way from solid).

I engaged in a series of ill-advised emails with some Trump supporters. I put thought and effort into those emails I might've better poured into a new novel. I appealed to logic, I presented facts, I got angry, sad, full-on belligerently enraged, and then I despaired. I came to understand we're not reading the same news or living in the same world. 

They have no problem contorting their minds to accept obvious lies from an authority figure, a practice for which religious upbringing makes an excellent primer. There's no way to bridge that gap as they've chosen willful ignorance and pledged loyalty to a death cult.

We can't agree to disagree when what's being disputed is reality. Yet somehow we have to live together or accept the inevitability of civil war. So that's where we are.


Despite my deep reservoirs of righteous rage, do I actually believe Republicans will answer for their crimes and their sedition? Do I believe there will ever be any real accountability for those at the top? How many bankers went to jail after the financial crises of 2007-2008 again? How many months in prison did Aunt Becky serve?

Something became immediately clear to me on election night 2020 as my home state of Indiana flipped bright hateful red during the first hour of ballot counting despite all my Tweets and Facebook posts and crushing anxiety because I was compelled to think about Trump at least once a day every day for four long years. That red state surrounding my brown child felt personal.

On that night, I learned my speaking directly to politics appears to make no difference in the world, or at least, not enough of one. 

Is this where I tell you I'm done with politics forever? Of course not, and if I did, you shouldn't believe me. Is this where I tell you there is no hope because people are trash? Nah. There's always hope and I know plenty of wonderful Hoosiers who wear their masks and practice empathy and are appropriately horrified by the right's embrace of racism and authoritarianism. 

What I've lost faith in is methodology, not the cause. If an angry Facebook post made the world better, it would've happened by now, and it would've been penned by an author far more capable than me:) If pointing out facts and logic was a winning strategy, our celebrities would be scientists and philosophers instead of beautiful people who speak witty dialogue others wrote (this line would probably have greater resonance if it didn't follow a gif of Ben Affleck). 

I still believe there are ways to make the world gradually better and that more of us doing them makes a better world. I just want to adopt more of a be-about-it-don't-talk-about-it motto.  Although, fun fact, I included similar sentiments in last year's post

Hopefully, if Trump really goes away, I can actually make good on this resolution in 2021: not to be apolitical (I'll still be me and occasionally unable to help myself), but to indirectly approach politics. 


This little blog of mine turned a decade old this year (time, you wicked thing, you move too fast). I might be hopelessly romantic, but I remain convinced that reading fiction increases empathy and intelligence. Doing my part to increase literacy and the celebration of the written word is very political indeed and an act of optimism.

In March, during the late start of quarantine, I considered pulling the plug on the podcast as I didn't know if it would still be appropriate or feasible. Also, I wasn't sure I wanted to leave a record of myself during this time. I can hear the fear and despair in my voice in a few episodes and my interesting 2020 hairstyles and weights will be forever preserved on YouTube, but I'm so grateful for the opportunity to have chatted with so many admirable folks. 

Those conversations gave me something to look forward to and enjoy in a year when there wasn't much of that. I started both this blog and its podcast with no real plan in mind and so it remains. I've improved as I went and proceeded with the principal that an imperfect something is better than a perfect nothing.

The most recent episode of the podcast officially marked 100 shows. I don't know how long the show will continue. It's a fair amount of work and 2020 has made it clear life can change dramatically at any time. But these long conversations with amazing writers and publishing professionals have taught me more about writing than anything else I've ever done. I hope Esteemed Audience feels as though they're learning as well.

I may go on to record another 900 episodes or  more. I might be forced to put the show on hiatus or quit it altogether depending on life circumstances. Should that happen, it won't erase the joy I've felt in each of those conversations. I'm as proud of the 100 episodes that exist as I am of my novels. I'm thrilled people all around the world are tuning in because my guests said a whole lot of brilliant things worth hearing.


It's good that 2020 was my best podcasting year as it was far from my best writing year. If you're wondering what I did with my time instead, just check out my long list of favorite videogames at the top of this post. I also reread a bunch of favorite books and the entire run of The Walking Dead (God bless you, Robert Kirkman) in addition to keeping up with reading for the podcast.

And I sat and stared at my computer for long stretches. And I doom scrolled. And I redid my YouTube videos, which was very time consuming and a really excellent way to avoid to writing. YouTube is part of my author platform, so that's like, writing adjacent, right?

I had planned to release Banneker Bones and the Cyborg Conspiracy over the summer, but I received enough brilliant suggestions from early readers in the spring, that I decided to do a major rewrite instead. That's not unheard of for me and I would've hit all my deadlines, but 2020 happened.

I enrolled in virtual first grade with my son and we kept him home all year. Mrs. Ninja also stopped leaving the house, forcing me to be creative in finding times to be creative.

And even when I found that time, I had to force myself to put aside my constant dread that police sure do seem to be shooting a lot of boys who look like mine and saying they should stop is somehow a volatile political statement!?!?! and another massive super spreader event held by morons who hate science is killing a bunch of us and somehow Moscow Mitch McConnell mandates life for an entire country and no one stops him even though he's just one frail old man who could easily be stopped if the sort of Americans who fought King George were still around and oh my God, who amongst this vile, ignorant Trump-loving populace would even appreciate the majestic novel I would definitely craft if I could stop checking Twitter for 30 minutes?

(Gollum never looked this greedy for power)

I keep up with enough writers and other creatives to know I wasn't alone. Some writers I've known for years gave up writing completely in 2020. Others simply put their writing on hold. I heard a lot of bad news from a lot of writers. Some good news as well, of course, but while 2020 was a bad year for everyone, it was a particularly bad year for those relying on already unsteady income streams.

I did the rewrite of Banneker 3 and another and I worked on a new project, but writing just didn't seem to be the most important thing this year. Part of that might be that now that Banneker's story has a possible ending (though I've an idea for a fourth book), I feel like I've written the stories I most wanted to write. At least, for now. 

But part of it is because writing has never been the most important thing. I just occasionally thought it was.


I've been amazed at my luck from the day I realized my wife was into me (her friend helpfully called me and said, "she's into you"), but I've never been more keenly aware of my good fortune than I was this year. I've joked that every marriage that survived 2020 should get credit for extra years added to their total.

Sure, we got snippy with each other and went just a little Jack Torrance-y on occasion, but we've spent as much time together in 2020 as we did when we were first dating, We cooked for each other, she told me of drag race competitions and reality-show housewives I didn't care about, I told her Batman and videogame news she didn't care to hear, but we also comforted one another through the worst parts of cutting off contact with the outside world. And she did some very impressive things this year career-wise, which is why I played those video games on our fancy new TV.

But a PS5 wasn't my favorite new possession of 2020. That honor goes to a beautiful gently used cast-iron patio set where I could set up my computer and sneak in some work here and there while my son bounced around on his favorite new possession: a giant trampoline a neighbor gave us for free. No haptic feedback webslinging ever gave me as much joy as jumping on that thing gave him, and his laughter gave me joy.

Because I was enrolled in Little Ninja's classes virtually, I knew what materials for us to use and what topics to focus on, allowing us to work together throughout the day and never in a continuous block. The result was Little Ninja made some significant improvements this year and I'm far more proud of that than I would've been a new story. 

And on the occasions when I heard that old voice in my head lecturing me for spending too much time with my kid when my daily wordcount was lagging or nonexistent, it occurred to me just how messed up my value system has been for a very long while. Late-stage capitalism warps everything, including an artist's perspective of their own worth and of the value of life itself.

On a long enough timeline, I'll probably write some more books or at least a few more epic blog posts. And if I don't, that's a shame, but I'm proud of the books already available. If I died tomorrow, a possibility Covid-19 brings into stark focus every day, my greatest regret wouldn't be that I never wrote All Together Now 3. I've got this one period in time when I can focus completely on my child, hopefully without messing him up too badly, and my books can wait:)

In 2021, I'm going to promote Banneker Bones and the Cyborg Conspiracy and hopefully have more conversations with interesting people you can watch or listen to, which has the effect of assuring me the world will have plenty of excellent literature even if I don't write it. I'm going to read, and not just books by guests on the show, but scary stories and mysteries and comics and stuff I like. And God willing and I'm alive, I'll play Horizon Forbidden West the very second it releases.

And should a new story, better than the half drafts I have presently, draw me in, I'm sure I'll write it. But if I find some other things I enjoy doing more than writing, I'm going to do those things instead, and I'm going to be okay with it. My dream came true: I'm an author and people like the things I wrote. Anything else I write will be because not writing it will make me less happy than writing it.

Life is short and can change on a dime. If 2020 has taught us anything, it should be that life is not static. I'm going to do the best I can with the time I have and I wish the same for you, Esteemed Reader. I hope 2021 is better for all of us.

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