In a few different episodes of You Made It Weird this year, Pete Holmes reminded us of a common mindfulness metaphor, the necessity of finding good wood for the fire of consciousness to burn. As someone with bipolar disorder that often presents in aggressive manners, I have learned that this mantra is extra relevant to my day-to-day living. Whatever I allow into my brain holds the possibility of bursting back out, out-of-context & irrationally, tangled in a mess of psychosis. Thus, this year, especially the past six months, I’ve been acutely aware of what I allow into my brain, much like a dieter monitors what is eaten.
I see it in two ways; it is important to note the intensity level of the media & also the amount consumed. In the last few years, I have learned to avoid violent movies & video games, as they tend to feed fantasies & nightmares about possible danger & tragic outcomes. I’m also in a habit-changing phase to reexamine activities that make me feel guilty because of their relationship to violence & immorality, such as porn & fast food. Instead, I am focusing on engaging with stuff that propels the spirit forward, be it my mindfulness practice, my new exercise routine, or my daily reading & writing schedule.
In many ways, it is about avoiding unnecessary stressors. Like focusing on good conversation rather than obsessing over my phone, or like showing gratitude instead of bottling up bad feelings, I am learning to lean towards the positive. In my younger days, I signed all of my correspondences with “Stay stoked, Tyler,” which was less of an affirmation of positivity, but a regular reminder, both to myself & the recipient, to try to stay burning bright; as Matt Hart said, “Stay alive & stay light for as long as you can.” Here are twenty morsels of creation that helped me shine a tad bit bright this trip around the sun:
Weakness is the Brand by Maria Bamford
“You don't have to be that good at being a therapist to make a ton of money. I've been paying this one woman -- online therapy, two-hundred bucks a month. She just texted me: "Christine, of course you're stressed. You just had a baby."... And it was helpful!”
MB’s stand-up doesn’t just utilize mental illness as a schtick, but rather, it harnesses such hardships as the fuel that propels the performance on-stage. As MB notes in this special, the combo of medication, therapy, & personal growth have left her with less direct lessons & anecdotes from being one of the psychologically troubled; still, this hour takes a step forward in embodying the mental health journey in our current culture. The best example of this is her story about going to a funeral of a friend who committed suicide & hearing someone call the person selfish. Everyone is allowed in on a joke not everyone is in on.
End Times Fun by Marc Maron
“You never know when someone's gonna dump some shit in your head that's gonna ruin your life.”
I watched this special with my friends JH & CM right before the Covid put some brakes on the world. What a weird predictive force this special ended up being! MM is aging quite nicely, both growing into his curmudgeonly self & growing wiser in terms of being more contemplative & less reactive. Still, MM speaks for the “What the fuck!” moments in all of us, watching people bramble in & out of stores without masks, helpless daily to a president who chooses division on unifying truth & a society, which is in fact us, that seems hellbent on killing us, be it through global warming, societal upheaval, or all this junk we shove down our throats. When MM sits on the stool, you owe it to your inner turmoil to listen.
David Bazan at Tinker Coffee Company
“It’s hard to be / hard to be / it’s hard to be / a decent human being.”
One of the first & most soul-brightening things of 2020 was my 2019 Christmas present from DS: tickets to see one of my heroes David Bazan live. I’ve seen him a couple times before, both solo & with Pedro the Lion, & I think this was my favorite, a performance I’ve been living off of for the past eleven months. He’d play a few songs & then do some chatting with the host, back & forth till the night wore off. His young son was there just hanging out. DB could be seen both before & after the show just waltzing around the warehouse. I lied when I said “performance” earlier; really, what DB does, & what I strive to do in all my work, is generously & vulnerably allow the world to gaze upon you as your humblest self, be it in song, in conversation, or in mere being.
Bad Dad Brewing
When I moved back here to the middle of elsewhere, I was worried about a separation from fresh-ingredient restaurants (most of the eating places in my county are frozen / GFS places) & good local craft beer (drinking less these days, I want to make my brews count). Bad Dad Brewing filled a big hole in that regard, providing a safe (big converted warehouse space) & delicious (made-from-scratch pizza) option around here. I’m particularly fond of Sundays, when you can snag two pizzas & a pitcher of beer for thirty bucks.
I’ve yapped about this app by Sam Harris plenty on this here blog this year. Still, it obviously had to be on the list. In terms of managing my disorder--keeping symptoms in check, staying productive through the stress, & recovering from episodes--my new mindfulness practice has literally saved my sanity, & quite possibly my life, this year, & just to be clear, Waking Up is my mindfulness practice. Its daily meditation is the ten-minute break I take each day to re-ground myself, often two or three times over. Its conversations with mindfulness teachers & neuroscience scholars allows me to better understand the mind I’m often battling to stay balanced. That moment when I open my eyes after a session is often the most joyous part of my day, when I see clearly my body, my mind, whatever is myself, as simply more objects mixed in the world, ready to go. What a relief!
You Made It Weird with Pete Holmes
“Like, a lot of this is me putting this stuff out there to let a counsel look at it, like a group of strangers look at it, and just be like ‘is this that strange?”
In my battle for balance, I sometimes erase quiet & true solitude with any & all opportunity for the company of another; thus, I’ve had to stay mindful this year of not just turning on podcasts as background noise, something to keep me company when I should probably be practicing being alone. Podcasts first became interesting to me because it was one of the first spaces in my life where I heard men talk about their feelings, their interests, & their journeys honestly & openly; obviously I appreciate those same efforts by folks with other gender identities, but as a man from the Midwest, it was a shocking & necessary example of male vulnerability & progress. This is all to say that PH settles all those criteria with engaging conversations about how we laugh, why we love, & what we believe. As a podcaster myself, I feel granted permission to be goofy, a little off-kilter in pursuit of connection & understanding, thanks to PH.
The Bill Simmons Podcast
“Our favorite teams bring people together, keep family members close, bond people from different generations. Some of the happiest moments of my life involve something that happened with one of my teams.”
Not everything has to be in dogged pursuit of mindfulness & peace; much of that journey can exist in pleasure, in entertainment, or in contentment. Sports has always been that gateway get-away for me & BS has long been my pilot. I appreciate folks who are opinionated without being an asshole, who are knowledgeable without being a show-off. Like with You Made It Weird, in his own way, BS holds out his allegiances & models his thought-processes in a vulnerable, connective way. I escape into his episodes as a way to think of something beyond my own journey, the hallucinatory effect of fandom.
Sacred Smoke Herbals
A big change this year for me was swapping a self-medicating relationship with weed for the high-free world of CBD. My buddy JL introduced me to Sacred Smoke Herbals, a small woman-owned operation that offers that perfect top-quality / affordable combo of plant magick. Between the anxiety of having a mental illness, the chronic pain of my bad bones, & the late night tussle with slumber, my days possess spots of time that require some relief. I’m thankful for CBD’s ability to boost me legally without the distraction of the head high. These days I am rolling with either Lifter (for the needed pick-me-up) or Moon Dust (for the necessary calm down).
The New One by Mike Birbiglia & J. Hope Stein
“Writing is always a process of trial and error, but this was writing about my own errors, so the errors felt compounded, like I was re-living my own mistakes and failing at that too.”
MB is one of my favorite artists because of how he allows his work to snowball beyond bounds. Where most comedians would write & record a stand-up special & then move on to the next one, MB gets carried by curiosity, wondering what can be built further out of this special. It is like a house; additions & pole barns & landscaping & basketball hoops are added instead of just selling the house & moving on to build a new house. I got to see his special, The New One, live & I’ve watched it several times, often alongside new parents, but here, MB has brought in his wife, the poet J. Hope Stein, to add connective tissue through her poems, relating to the stories MB has already told. These new ligaments allow the beams to grow stronger & the joints to become tighter.
Diagram 20th Anniversary tarot deck
“I am afraid I have poisonous thoughts.” - Jack Hereford
Diagram magazine has long been one of my favorite literary journals, existing mostly as a online journal for twenty years now, but always with a few merch surprises up its sleeve, like the 10th anniversary playing card deck or the disc golf discs. This time, they’ve truly outdone themselves, honoring the two-decade run with a tarot deck set, featuring new pieces by past contributors, including personal favorites like Sean Lovelace, Amber Sparks, & Ross Gay. I’m no tarot head, but I just had to snag a copy. I’m thankful I did because it has already become a source of inspiration, begging, “How do I make the next creation even more timely & interesting than the last?”
The Nightgown by Taisia Kitaiskaia
“He watches / a virgin exit the church. Her beauty is a single / Plump word squealing in between the pews, / Leaving behind a sticky streak, marmalade or dew.”
I had the honor of being classmates with several incredible poets while at the University of Texas-Austin for my MFA in poetry, TK among them. She has created a truly unique voice situated at the intersection of surrealism, folklore, & translation. It’s no secret I like poems to unnerve me a little. These poems do just that, insisting on exploration over explanation, hilarity over clarity. I don’t just mean “hahahaha,” but more like “wow, okay, that just happened”--antelopes feeding on beauty, drunks toasting the speaker’s foolishness, “giraffes, [c]hewing the moon’s soft yogurt with blind lips.”As I’ve been editing my own next poetry manuscript, this collection has reminded me of the power of going on one’s nerve, as O’Hara recommended.
The Tradition by Jericho Brown
“A poem is a gesture toward home.”
I see JB exploring many of the same concerns in these new poems as I hope to in my current work--poem as container for an ever-evolving vision of the self. He is inventive, creating a new form, the duplex, combining the sonnet, ghazal, & the blues. He is precise, tapping out piece by piece, line by line, a vision of the full poem requiring truly giving over to the poem as a full-loop experience. He is open to possibility, utilizing line breaks as a way to make contradictions, revelations, & characterizations. This collection feels less like a book & more like a giant moment, teeming with a poetic commitment that feels really fresh.
A Treatise on Stars by Mei-Mei Bersenbrugge
“Consciousness embodies it by acting self-referentially, not dualistically as in seeing, not seeing.”
Once in Dean Young’s workshop, he asked us to bring in a poem by a poet we highly admire but that would surprise the class as an influence; back then, I offered Anne Carson as said poet, but now, I would present Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge. As I’m becoming familiar with her work, after discovering her in the Hick Poetics anthology a few years ago, I’m evermore in awe of the space, both of the page & of the intellect, that her poems insist on filling. This new book speaks with a meditative tongue, but thinks in a prayerful direction. Wandering deeper & deeper into the connection between us & whatever is out there, from the grass to the farthest galaxies, these poems model another option in wonderment.
Schitt’s Creek / Longmire
“I’m incapable of faking sincerity.” - Stevie / “If you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes the truth.” - Sheriff Longmire
Like with the Bill Simmons podcast, the mind requires moments to exist in a contented pleasure that creative, spiritual, & intellectual avenues don’t offer. This is where television usually comes in for me. With most television, I use it as mild accompaniment to mundane household tasks--doing dishes, folding laundry, cleaning--but certain shows shift right into a necessary form of attention. With Schitt’s Creek, I found some comfort in the face of my wife leaving, a comedic pick-yourself-back-up story too absurd to be true, but also somehow too heartfelt to not connect with. For spurts of the year, I’d find myself in late night hours, unable to stop crying, unable to find rest, turn to the Rose family & their community as my own playful distraction. With Longmire, it was a recent trip with my dad, him & I closing out days with this contemporary western drama. Over-the-top, it was rubbery enough to not bother the sensitive tendencies of my mind, but there was also a real humanity to the show that book-ended my own feelings of the day. The best television for me always toes the line between absurdity & sincerity.
Show Pony by Orville Peck
“You and I bide our time / And I miss summertime.”
This EP crashed into my life like a glittery meteorite. Burrowing out of the influence of grand country characters of yesteryear like Dolly & Elvis, OP has created here songs that have a deep, deep core to them below the glamour. This argument that he’s not country because he’s a gay Canadian or because of the glitz is just ridiculous. These six songs connect to the contemporary country music I love that is inclusive of both the past & the future, acknowledging influence (such as a cover of “Fancy” & a duet with Shania Twain) while also breaking new ground (such as representing LGBTQ+ country kiddos). For a fella that doesn’t show his face or use his own name, Orville Peck sure seems to be a great example of making the art you want to make, presenting oneself as truly as desired.
Long Violent History by Tyler Childers
“It’s the worst that it’s been since the last time it happened / It’s happening again right in front of our eyes.”
This is another album that honors its legacy while making true strides forward. His message that he released accompanying the album sums up this dichotomy well, calling for a better application of southern values to supposedly (as in “how is this not just the default yet”) progressive issues like racial justice. As a piece of art, I’m amazed by this album’s commitment to vulnerability. First, we get eight instrumental fiddle tracks, with TC himself doing some sawing, an admittedly new endeavor for him; to end it, the title track presents a liberal southern white man’s perspective of the current Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of the Breonna Taylor & George Floyd killings. We should all hope to be so able to push aside our ego to pursue our values & our talents as far as they’ll take us.
The two Cuttin’ Grass albums by Sturgill Simpson
“You could have told me you didn't care about me / You could have told me you was the cheating kind / I'd be out on the town running around / Seeing what else I could find / Instead of sitting here without you / And with you on my mind”
I must have a thing for country artists who push their own boundaries, often just for the heck of it. SS is the current shining example of a musician who follows the pattern of his own wind. What started as an outlaw country trajectory added in psychedelic rock & jam-band vibes before blistering into last year’s Sound & Fury, an industrial rock record that coincided with an anime film. Now SS has hopped deep back to his roots, turning his first four records’ worth of material in two bluegrass albums. There’s this misconception that country boys can’t like non-country things, that somehow it invalidates our country card. SS has proven that not only do those forays into other matter matter, but in fact, it makes our hillbilly side even stronger.
“Brightest Star” by Lilly Hiatt / “Kyoto” by Phoebe Bridgers / “January” by Tyler Lance Walker Gill / “Where To Start” by Bully
Here are four songs from four strong 2020 albums. I stuck them here together for two reasons: practically, I wanted them to fit on the list & artistically, they all exude an angst that covered 2020 with its dust. “Brightest Star” by Lilly Hiatt is where I hide whatever hope I have left for my love with my ex-wife DS. “Kyoto” by Phoebe Bridgers is where I let loose the frustration I feel for how she left. “January” by Tyler Lance Walker Gill is where I let loose the frustration of what this year’s done to me. “Where To Start” by Bully is where I learn to live with the rubble of my current predicament. I’m always down for a rowdy, catchy song played entirely on heart strings.
Justin Townes Earle
“LE, LS / GS, GT / Don't mean one damn thing to me / Just get me something that will get me where I'm going / Like that pretty little thing riding by in a champagne Corolla.”
I wanted to take a moment here at the end to honor two of my favorite musicians who passed away this year. Clearly taken too soon, JTE’s death is a reminder of how anyone can struggle, how struggles loop in & out. I’ve grown as a JTE fan since his death, finding remarkable wisdom in his pop-rock-tinged blues. Whether quiet or raucous, the best JTE tunes burn because of his understanding of the dilemma of living: one must keep going until they don’t. My favorite JTE tracks since his passing have been “Harlem River Blues,” “Champagne Corolla,” & “15-25.”
“Then as God is my witness / I'm getting back into show business / I'm gonna open up a nightclub called "The Tree of Forgiveness" / And forgive everybody ever done me any harm”
JP understood the cosmic joke, that everything is at least a little ridiculous & thus life should be approached accordingly. His songs open up the possibilities of what can be in a folk song. I’ll stand by the fact that The Tree of Forgiveness is the best album ever made by someone over the age of 70. The expansive journey of his career should give all of us artists inspiration to just keep going, just keep making. My favorite JP tracks since his passing have been “When I Get to Heaven,” “In Spite of Ourselves,” & “Lake Marie.”