Weekly Wanderings: Still Wrapping Up 2018 Edition

Stark but sunny winter morning over the lake near my house in in Northeast Ann Arbor

■ I have a minor flurry (a squall?) of new pieces to share this week, as several things I wrote in late 2018 got published all at once:

At Dissent Magazine (subscribe!), I have a long review essay about new books by Carl Minzner (End of an Era) and Elizabeth Economy (The Third Revolution) that discuss Chinese politics under Xi Jinping. This essay was one of the more difficult things I’ve written; even with a generous limit of 3,000 words I felt like I didn’t have nearly enough space to get into everything I wanted to say, and those 3,000 words came very, very slowly. But I’m happy with the results and hope others find it worth reading.

Jeff Wasserstrom and I co-authored an article for Education About Asia (subscribe!) that also examines Chinese politics under Xi Jinping, from the perspective of considering his years in office against a much longer arc of modern Chinese history. EAA articles are intended for use in high-school/undergraduate classrooms, and it would be great to receive feedback from any teachers who assign or draw from ours in their courses.

Finally, several months ago the American Historical Association (join!) asked me if I would write a profile of myself for its “Member Spotlight” column at the Perspectives on History blog, and it was published a few days ago. The AHA has 12,000 members and only a handful get approached to be in the Member Spotlight, so I’m really honored that they selected me. Thanks, AHA.

■ As today’s title suggests, I carried over a lot of items from my 2018 to-do list to my 2019 one. But I also carried over a 2018 practice that I’m trying to stick to more rigorously in 2019: the Done-List, which Katherine Firth discusses in this recent blog post at Research Degree Insiders. I started sporadically keeping my own Done-List late in 2017, when I realized that I spent a huge amount of time worrying about everything I hadn’t done, but never reflected on the things I did accomplish. I got a blank journal and started making short daily notes of what I’d read, written, cooked, watched, etc., or any major activities in my day (exercise, movies, museum visits, and so forth). Since so much of what I work on is long-term—covering several days, weeks, or even months—tasks tend to recur on my to-do lists for a discouraging length of time. The Done-List shows me that I’m making progress on these tasks, day by day.

I was not great about keeping up my daily record in 2018—I’d get busy or be on the road and miss a couple of days in a row, after which it was nearly impossible to recreate them. (It’s frightening how little you remember even just a few days later.) My 2018 journal has some rather large gaps in it, and I’d like to minimize or even eliminate those in 2019. So far, so good, 12 days in.

■ One of the items that went into yesterday’s Done-List entry was “Saw Mary Poppins Returns.” The 1964 Mary Poppins remains one of my top-ten all-time favorite movies, so I was somewhat hesitant to see this sequel—how can anyone hope to compete with Julie Andrews or the Sherman Brothers score? And while I enjoyed parts of the new movie, I think it falls far, far short of its predecessor.

What I liked: that the filmmakers maintained the visual style of the original, rather than produce a 21st-century version that’s been CGI’ed to death; the Lin-Manuel Miranda-led “Trip a Little Light Fantastic,” the only musical sequence that I expect to have any staying power; Mary’s updated fashions; the occasional subtle insertion of melodies from the 1964 score underneath scenes.

And I thought it was interesting (I’m probably over-analyzing this) that Jane and Michael Banks have both pursued careers (as a labor organizer and artist, respectively) that their pragmatic banker father probably scoffed at. He worked hard to ensure the family’s financial stability, which then gave Jane and Michael the freedom to choose less lucrative paths in life—and Michael, in particular, admits he is not good with money, to the extent that he now risks losing the family home. David Tomlinson’s George Banks would have no patience for his adult son’s inept handling of his finances.

■ Author Jami Attenberg published an essay at Curbed about her decision to move from New York to New Orleans in her forties and the changes (nearly all for the better) it has made in her life. These lines in particular really resonated with me:

I was looking for a different kind of stability when I moved here. And it was less about making mistakes I could learn from and more about making choices I believed in.

When I first moved to Ann Arbor and told people I had come here from New York, they were generally surprised that I had made the decision to leave. Not everyone—some nodded sympathetically, noting how expensive New York was—but many, especially younger Michigan natives, expressed amazement that I would choose a quiet “city” of 120,000 (more when the Michigan football team is playing!) over The City.

I have only gradually been able to articulate all the reasons I burned out on New York, and most of those reasons I only see clearly now that I can compare my life in A2 to the one I used to lead. At the time, the best explanation I could offer was that New York made me tired, mean, and poor.

Now, I can say this:
I wanted more structure and fewer demands on my time. Part of that entailed switching jobs—I did really interesting work in New York, but the hours were long and unpredictable—and part of it came with moving to a smaller, more manageable community and (though I’m very much conflicted about this) owning a car, which vastly reduces the amount of time and energy I spend on things like going to the grocery store.
I wanted to do more stuff. Yoga, tennis, volunteering at community events, going to the movies—all of these are things I enjoy, and almost none of them were possible before I moved here (well, I did occasionally go to the movies in New York). Again, that’s tied up in time and money, but it’s also that New York yoga studios terrified me, I didn’t think to find someone to play tennis with me, I didn’t feel a part of any community enough to seek out events to volunteer at … in New York my days were filled with either work or handling the mundane details of life, and though I wanted to do other things I didn’t even really know how to start making that happen.
I wanted more security. Meaning, mostly, financial security, and that’s simply more possible in a place with a lower cost of living.

I woke up one morning early in 2016 and was struck with the thought that I desperately had to leave New York because, as Attenberg writes, “I was able to maintain a life there. But that’s just it. I was only maintaining. I was not thriving.” I won’t gloss over the shortcomings of living in A2: the bagels and pizza are both sub-par, my professional opportunities are more limited, I don’t get to see my family and friends in Philadelphia as frequently, the Chinese food is mostly not good, I don’t like having to drive everywhere but would find it difficult to rely exclusively on public transportation, it’s a small and not especially diverse community, the winter really does last six months … all of these things give me pause. But on the whole, my decision to move to Ann Arbor remains a choice I believe in.

■ Currently on repeat in my earbuds:

Top Tweet of the Week: Shameless self-promotion.


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