Learning by Applying

Well, here we are, at the end of 2018, and yet again I find the last post was published here at the end of the year before.

I started this site on a simple impulse: to have a little corner of the web under my own name, dedicated to the public face I presented to the world. It then became a deposit for my thoughts, something in which it was superseded when Eli and Jerry invited me to write at The Ümlaut, and then when friends and I started Sweet Talk, and lately after fewer friends and I started Liberal Currents and Dave started Embodiment and Exclusion.

I have considered the question of what exactly this site is for on several occasions along this journey. For a time it seemed appropriate to keep it as the main non-social media venue for personal reflection. Then, when I intended to write a book, it was the primary location of Austin Kleon-style show-your-work updates. But, as I finally admitted publicly in my last updated, the book project stalled long ago.

During 2018, there were several times I was reminded of this site’s existence and wondered if it was finally time to roll it up.

But there’s a kind of writing that I’ve missed, something that isn’t appropriate either to Liberal Currents, where we require a more polished product aimed at a higher purpose than self-fulfillment, or at Embodiment and Exclusion, where I would quickly drown Dave’s posts on his own site with material at best tangentially related to his enterprise there.

This is the kind of writing I began at The Ümlaut but really ran with at Sweet Talk, for I was not reading nearly enough for it to work during my time at the former. The kind of post I have its mind owes its origin to some book or books or specific thinker that I have been reading or reading about, and struggling to grasp. A pivotal part of that struggle was to write a lot of posts about various aspects of what I was struggling with. It did not result in much good writing, in any sense of the term. There are very few posts I wrote at Sweet Talk that I am proud of–though the number is not zero (I wrote quite a lot after all). Nevertheless, they served a purpose, one I find underserved since I ceased writing there.

Sweet Talk was originally conceived of as a conversation blog, inspired by group blogs such as the EconLog in the early days, when the bloggers would post responses to each others’ posts on a regular basis. It ended up largely being conversational in a different way; my posts were, as it were, part of an ongoing conversation with myself, but it served as a basis for many interesting conversations with others, cobloggers or not.

One thing I learned the hard way, and also through observation, and through the guidance of wiser friends (as in all things), is that the quantity of books consumed means very little in the end. You can read quite a lot of smart books by great minds and scholars and still end up with a shallow mind. How you read is at least as important as what. This is what those with a degree education in a field, or at least some sort of institutional support for pursing knowledge in it, have over the autodidact. Yet the reverse is also true: the many online scenes for communal reading and especially discussing of texts provides novel contexts for autodidacts that are often unavailable to the professional. Both approaches have their traps and dead ends, but both have their promise.

I am lucky in the context of my reading. I have made many better read and wiser friends who put up with my relentless questioning on the topics that fascinate me. It also does not offend their professional dignity when I attempt, feebly, to take on some hard line on a matter in which they know more than I, to draw out where I might be mistaken, or why they read the same texts but drew different conclusions.

But still, I miss the posting. Dave once pointed out to me that the writing I did at Sweet Talk paralleled the graduate student who must write an essay performing a straight application of the texts he has recently read. That is just about right, and that sort of writing’s greatest value is in service to the growth of the writer.

So I think I may, once again, begin to straightforwardly apply texts, in writing, as part of my process of learning. And it seems appropriate to do so here, a place that need not be so polished and public-oriented as Liberal Currents, nor so ephemeral as social media. A site under my own name, on servers and under a domain name I pay for myself, in easily-ported WordPress should my relationship with the hosting company deteriorate for some unforeseen reason.

This site has therefore received a stay of execution but also, hopefully, a new life. Expect more to come. I have on my mind Joanne Freeman’s excellent Affairs of Honor for my next post, one of many this year that my friend Adam Rust brought to my attention which has remained on my mind since.

A Year in Writing

At the beginning of the year, Eli and Jerry asked if I would write for an online magazine they were going to launch. The Ümlaut launched at the end of January with a piece I wrote on the long tailI reread Chris Anderson’s book for the piece, which was a fun exercise as I was really just beginning to explore the digital landscape when the book was originally published.

It was very humbling to be asked on board by Eli and Jerry, as, if I may say so, those guys are a way bigger deal than I am—they’ve drawn more attention to themselves, they’re known in the technology and policy space, and they have an institution like Mercatus behind them. I’m just a guy writing about the stuff I’m interested in when I’m not at my day job.

When I started writing for The Ümlaut, I wondered if I would be able to keep it up for the once a week pace that they originally had all the initial authors stick to. I also wasn’t too sure if I could be disciplined enough to write 600 to 1,000 word pieces. At the time, my writing had slowed down to once a month at most, and it usually came in the form of 2,000 to 3,000 word pieces, and beyond—like this one.

It’s actually surprised me how easy it has been. I have questions on my mind, I always have. I deal with such questions by reading, talking with people online and in person, and then writing about them. Churning out a piece week after week has allowed me to follow lines of thoughts much further than I otherwise would have, in the space of a year. Writing pieces between 600 and 1,000 words long has forced me to focus; what might have been a 2,000 word piece might work fine as two or three shorter pieces. In fact, so far, it has been better.

In fact, I ended up writing more than necessary. My natural state this year has been, for the most part, two or three weeks ahead of where I need to be. And I’ve still written the odd longer piece—I just bring it back over here to do so. And I write personal pieces over here, and some geeky things that wouldn’t really be appropriate even for The Ümlaut’s very broad mandate.

Writing pieces like this has become like second nature to me. When I burn through my queue and only have a day or two left before Monday, I’ve found that I can usually churn out a first draft of a 600 or more word piece in less than an hour. It’s no exaggeration to say that I think about and talk about this stuff fairly constantly, with Twitter being a perpetual conversation machine in this regard. So I usually have two or three partly baked ideas that I can get something from in a pinch.

I had such an easy time that I thought it might be high time to start working towards getting to that same point for fiction writing. My idea for doing this was fairly straightforward: writing nonfiction four times a month had been a great experience, maybe doing that for fiction would help me develop in that area.

I’m not really satisfied with the results. I didn’t think I was being very demanding of myself—I told myself I could write literally any length of fiction, even a single paragraph, as long as I did it four times each month. But in practice since I didn’t give myself a set time when I’d do it (since I didn’t give myself a set time for writing nonfiction) I just put it off and then it started to feel kind of like a burden. While I’m glad I finally did get myself to write some fiction, the fact is that I didn’t write anything of the sort in November or December.

I’m not going to give up, though. I’m actually OK with a creative process that has fits and starts, I just also think that I need to build good habits if I want to get anywhere. So I’m going to be drawing some inspiration from Austin Kleon and change things up a bit in 2014.

I can’t overstate how happy I am with the experience of writing at The Ümlaut, though. I’ve got 49 pieces and growing over there. Some questions I’ve looked at:

Is mankind tending towards more diversity or more homogeneity, and if the latter, does this mean that we are globally becoming a single point of failure? Pieces in this topic:

This year I also struggled with the question of what role stories play in human affairs—and under “stories” I also put things like theory and ideology.

  • A Race of Storytellers is, if I’m being honest, a rehash of stuff I’ve said elsewhere.
  • Institutional Spamfighting makes the case that formal rules matter very little relative to unarticulated practical knowledge.
  • The Dogma of Central Banking basically says the same thing as the previous post, but applies it specifically to macroeconomics. Macro theory is just a bunch of storytellers, central banking is a practice that bears little relationship to the theory. I’m honestly not sure if I believe this as strongly as I worded it.
  • This piece claimed that ideology and headline politics have nothing to do with electoral outcomes, next to big things like movements in the economy or catastrophes. It’s my Mandate of Heaven theory of democracy, which I’ve wanted to write about ever since I learned about the concept in Chinese history.
  • Science is a Bourgeois Pastime was probably the ultimate form of this line of thought—draws heavily on Taleb and McCloskey, and looks at this material again from a less hostile perspective.

Last year I intended to write a paper that combined ideas from Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovations, Hayek’s Constitution of Liberty, and Sowell’s Knowledge and Decisions. Life got in the way, and I didn’t end up writing that paper. But writing at The Ümlaut gave me the opportunity to following related trains of thought.

  • It all culminated, really, with this post over here. Along with the thinkers mentioned above it threw in stuff I had gleamed from Paul Adams’ Grouped and Oakeshott’s writing, as well as writing about Oakeshott’s philosophy. I’m still in the process of fleshing this out further for a paper, drawing on developments in network science from giants such as Albert-László Barabási.
  • The probabilistic stuff is highly inspired by Nassim Taleb, and Chris Reid has a great roundup of my Ümlaut pieces applying this framework and his thinking to policy and analyzing the structure of government.
  • Institutions Matter is pretty self-explanatory. Too many people talk in generalities like “government” or “markets” or “society”. Let’s talk about the common law, or the NOAA, or supply chains.

How do you live with the knowledge that you’re fundamentally biased and flawed?

  • A Cathedral of Their Own was inspired by a post by Jordan, and was about the futile but never ending craving for certainty, but also how fun it is to wrestle with the uncertain.
  • Portrait of an Irrational Mind is much more about the theory of self that emerges from familiarity with the behavioral economics and cognitive science literature.
  • This followup post is highly naval gazing, mostly coming to terms with the fact that I became very libertarian in a very short period of time, and now feel myself drifting from that somewhat. Includes a They Might Be Giants song and the statement “I came down with a chronic case of libertarianism”.

There’s a bunch of posts that fall under the header of—what is a good life? How can we improve our lot, make the most of what we have? Maybe it’s a sign of getting older, but I’m finding this question increasingly more interesting than larger, ideal-policy type questions.

  • Break the Cycle of Web Addition offers the best advice that I’ve been terrible at following. It boils down to: limit the time you dive into rapidly updating sources of information like Twitter, but when you do dive in, dive deep. Then spend long periods of times reading long essay, or writing, or working on something that requires your absolute attention for extended periods of time—it can even be video games. I like to think I’m much closer to this ideal than I was when I wrote it, but I’m still not very close.
  • How to Survive a Major Media Event was written after I saw people hurting themselves by following every tiny detail (true or false) that came out about the Boston marathon bombing the day the event happened and the day the perpetrators were being hunted down. Not worth it. This is advice that I do stick to, and always have.
  • Better Living Through Video Games makes the claim that video games can be rewarding. I stand by this.
  • The Option Value of Satisfying Work is based on an ethic passed down to me from my parents, who said that the point of work was the provide for yourself and your family, and you can always devote yourself to what you love in your free time. I’m proud of this piece and wouldn’t change a word of it.
  • The Universe is Indifferent to Your Illusion of Control is something I want to scream from the rooftops sometimes. Too many of my news and policy minded friends immiserate themselves by focusing intensely on things that they cannot control. You are only ever a small part of a larger whole. Pretending otherwise is no more wise than swallowing a porcupine.
  • This post over here is about improving your life by paying attention to and participating in the right conversations. This includes treating the sort of news you consume as part of ongoing conversations—it’s why I read industry publications but don’t read CNN, why I read Marginal Revolution but don’t read The New York Times.
  • Virtue is a Desire Modification Technology is the result of a seed that was planted over a year ago when I read Deirdre McCloskey’s Bourgeois Virtues but wasn’t quite sure what I had read. The next step came when I read Seneca, who Taleb had recommended. Now I’m kind of diving into Virtue Ethics head first, seeing where it takes me.

There were also a couple of one-off pieces I was proud of that don’t quite fit neatly into the threads above.

  • Death in the Modern World is probably the piece I am proudest of writing, perhaps ever.
  • The Matt Bruenig piece I’m also proud of, for different reasons. He and I have very different points of view, but I wanted to represent him both fairly and correctly, so I asked for his help, which he freely gave. I had to scrap my first draft entirely (I actually turned pieces of it into two short posts) because I got him completely wrong. Then I wasn’t sure how to even write about him in an interesting way. I returned to one essay by Oakeshott and it turned out to be the perfect response to Bruenig’s thinking. Most of all, I was happy to write about someone I disagreed with in a constructive way.

Writing has always been a part of my life, since I was a little kid. But very lately I have begun to feel the payoff of having spent so many years on it, and it makes it so much more enjoyable to invest yet more time into it.

I can’t wait to get started writing stuff for 2014.

New Beginnings

I had not intended to make a regular thing of summarizing my year. I wrote the post on 2011 because that was a particularly bad year, and I had things I wanted to work through the only way I know how–by writing about them. This year, however, turned out to be exceptional in precisely the opposite sense as last year–a lot of wonderful things happened in my life and in the lives of those important to me.

Of course, 2012 was always going to be an exceptional year for me in one important way–my wedding was set for August 25th, meaning that the whole process would characterize two-thirds of the year. That would have been enough to make it an exceptional year. But a lot of other stuff happened, and once again I cannot curb my compulsion to write about it.

Losing a Friend

2012 did not start well, as Tiger, our old family dog, passed away.

Can this be compared to the losses my family experienced the year before? Of course not.

But Tiger was almost 12 years old. He is the only dog for which it could conceivably said that we grew up together. You can certainly say it for my sister and brother, who are much younger than I and were quite small when he was a puppy.

It’s hard to describe how I felt about losing him. You get this little creature when he is only a few weeks old, and you watch him grow up. Then you watch him grow old. And you know, you always know, that he will be gone long before you have come anywhere near growing old yourself. Why do we put ourselves through this, again and again?

But of course, I will put myself through it again. There isn’t any reason I could articulate for what makes it worth it. But I could never say that getting Tiger was the wrong choice.

Tiger with ball

Getting Married

But that was in early January. Though I wanted to mention him, my brain has arbitrarily lumped his passing into 2011.

What 2012 was really about was getting married.

In a way, it was appropriate that our wedding fell on an election year. Turns out that planning a wedding is a bit of a political process.

I think I was more prepared than most, as my dad has been warning me about what wedding planning is like for basically as long as I’ve been alive. Still, laughing at old stories about the planning of my parents’ wedding is rather different from living the reality of planning my own.

Choices and responses that seem perfectly normal and acceptable under any other circumstances are suddenly imbued with significance. Decisions made for purely practical reasons come off as signals about how important you consider someone to be in your life. Tensions run high. Throw in all the logistical fun of planning any big event, and you’ll get the general picture–for those of you who aren’t already all too familiar with this process.

In the end, it was the happiest day of my life so far.

dancing at wedding

We lucked out in so many dimensions.

The weather was perfect–it was the best week of weather in the Boston area of the whole summer. There were no last minute logistical disasters. Our justice of the peace, bless her, was fantastic and entertaining. My friend and groomsman Alex brewed a special beer for the occasion–which was tremendously popular–and created a label using a picture of us taken by his wife Marley. Our dads knocked everyone’s socks off with their fantastic speeches. Her maid of honor gave an equally eloquent speech, and my best man embarrassed the hell out of me, as was his duty.

For all the stress of getting there, weddings, when they go well, are truly wonderful. So many people, from so many different times and parts of our lives, all come together. I have always known that I was exceptionally lucky for the family that I was born into, but I have been equally lucky in my friends. And I am unbelievably lucky in who I was standing next to, in front of all those friends and family, on that very day.

It was over in the blink of an eye, and then I was a husband, and I had a wife.

Still processing that one.

One of my favorite things about the wedding was seeing people from different parts of my life meeting one another. Also, seeing Internet friends meet each other–one of whom I met in person for the first time that day!

https://twitter.com/stephenharred/status/239753028742291456

https://twitter.com/stephenharred/status/239756777065947137

The next day, Catherine and I flew off to Paris to enjoy our honeymoon for a week and a half.

A New Job and New York

The time relaxing in Paris was just what the doctor ordered, because as soon as we returned to DC we had to shift gears and find an apartment in New York to move into by the end of the month.

Way back on March 31st, Catherine and I had taken a bus up to New York to stay with some friends for the weekend. A strangely large number of our friends had moved there recently, so we thought it high time to go up and spend some time with them. We stayed with Peter and Jordan, two good friends of ours (Peter was my best man). We didn’t do any tourist things, really–we lived life like our New York friends did for a couple of days.

It was a lot of fun. Neither of us had had any interest in living in New York before, but on the bus ride home, we discovered that we had each been swayed by seeing the residential side of it. We had no reason to move to New York, but for the first time we had come away feeling like we could see ourselves living there.

That very week I received an email from Eric Litman asking if I’d be interested in talking about a position at Medialets, a company based in New York.

The details of how this came about are very strange, and if you’re curious you can read about it here. Suffice to say that a blog post written four years prior and connecting to Eric on LinkedIn more recently were partly responsible for the opportunity.

It turned out to be a tremendous opportunity, in many dimensions. At the outset of the year, I thought I wanted to move in a more academic direction–hence my unfulfilled goal of trying to get a paper published. But Medialets oozes ambition, in a way that no company I’ve ever worked for has. It is in the middle of a rapidly changing industry–I doubt that by December of 2013 the company or the industry will look much like they do today. And Eric offered me a chance to be a part of that.

It has been very exciting, and between the nature of the job and the added move to a new city, it added an extra level of chaos to a year already beset by wedding planning.

The folks at Medialets were kind enough not to make me move until after my wedding. The first three months would be spent mostly working from home, and then coming up by train every other week for 2-3 days at a time.

This was mostly exciting at first, especially when they brought me up for my whole first week and also paid for Catherine to come, too. However, after a while, that kind of regular travel gets to be a bit much.

Throw in the fact that we needed to go to Massachusetts at least once this year to settle some wedding planning matters in person, and all that travel got to be downright tiring.

By the time we moved to New York, I was ready for the transition. As ready as I was going to be, anyway. With the help of a broker, I ended up seeing over 20 apartments; half of which I saw during my last trip up in September. We ended up in the Upper West Side, and have been pretty happy with the place.

It’s only been three months, but we already feel strangely comfortable in Manhattan. As someone who has had to be driven or drive everywhere for pretty much my whole life, it felt weird to sell off my car before we moved here. But it’s just so ridiculously easy to get around here without one (not to mention that I couldn’t exactly afford to keep one in some Manhattan garage!).

It’s too soon for me to write up all of my feelings about living in New York. Perhaps I will save it for another post, after I’ve lived here longer. But aside from two years in which my dad worked at the embassy in Paraguay, I have never lived anywhere but the DC area. And I have never lived more than a 30 minute drive from my immediate family. This was a big change, right on the heels of getting married.

We also ended up being in New York at a rather peculiar time.

Sandy: A Weeklong Interlude

We had been in New York for almost exactly a month. We had spent time with our friends who lived here. My parents had visited. The weekend before the storm, some friends from Virginia had visited.

We had just begun to settle into our new routines when Sandy came along and put half the city in the dark, to say nothing of the flooding.

We were very lucky. We’re way up in the 90s on the Upper West; the land is quite elevated and we never lost power. The businesses in our area never really closed, save perhaps during the height of the storm (though it isn’t like we were going out to check at that point).

Peter and Jordan live down in the 30’s on the east side; they lost power and running water. So they crashed with us for a few days.

That week was very strange. Medialets’ office was without power as well, though for me this was a moot point since I couldn’t really get to it without the subway. Since we had power, and since the nature of my work allows me to work from home easily, I thought I’d be pretty productive.

It didn’t quite work out that way. It wasn’t just the office; half of my coworkers didn’t have access to power or an Internet connection. Still, a lot of my job involves contact with people at other companies. I thought there was a good chance I’d be able to make progress with them.

Those people are all at ad agencies, ad tech companies, or media companies, though. Guess where nearly all of them were located? Lower Manhattan.

So I stayed online during the day and did what I could, working off of a system that was, at the time, diesel-fueled. Catherine continued to work from home as she normally would, for she was working remotely for the company in Virginia that she had been working for when we lived in DC. Jordan did what she could as well, and Peter caught up on his law school readings.

Your Huddled Masses
Your Huddled Masses

I really enjoyed having Peter and Jordan over, though I suspect that everyone but me grew a little tired of the close confinement. It turns out that my brain was wired for some kind of wolf pack mentality, where I’m happiest when I have my friends all in one space where we’re together all the time. So I had a great time.

It bears repeating just how lucky we were. Many people lost their homes to Sandy, some tragically lost even their lives. We lost access to the subway for a few days and gained some company, and then everything basically went back to normal.

Still it was a bit crazy to have this happen a mere month after moving here!

Another New Job

And since we hadn’t packed enough change into one year, Catherine went and got herself a new job as well!

Having the choice to work remotely was great when we were moving. If looking for an apartment at the eleventh hour was stressful, having to find the means to pay for it would have been more than doubly so!

But for a number of reasons it made sense to look for a job here. And the turnaround was amazingly fast–they reached out to her on a Monday and had made her an offer by that Friday.

Suffice to say that January of 2013 will begin with both of us working different jobs, in a different city, and with a different marital status than we had in January of 2012.

Blogging

Though not as exciting as everything else that was going on, this was a particularly fun year of blogging.

The most exciting thing to happen was that Stories of Progress and Stagnation was linked to by a few big econ blogs–including Marginal Revolution and the Economist’s Free Exchange blog–leading to a few thousand views. A big deal for a blog that gets a couple dozen views on a good day!

I wrote the piece mostly because I had a lot of stories that seemed persuasive to me, only they basically contradicted each other. It was a simple case of thinking through writing. I certainly wasn’t trying to make an argument.

Interestingly, most commenters seemed to think that I was arguing for one or the other of the stories. Even Robin Hanson clearly believed this:

You write well Adam, but in the end I’m not persuaded. You push me toward accepting Cowen et al’s position, at least for rich nations for now.

Implying that I was arguing against the stagnationist point of view. Several other commenters, on the other hand, seemed contemptuous of my apparently hard-line stagnationist position!

I’m still not sure whether this division is a sign of the failure, or proof of the success, of my writing in this instance. But in any case I enjoyed my fifteen minutes of elevated attention.

Though nearly all of my posts this year were basically intellectual storytelling, the one that was by far the most fun to write was My Love Letter to Video Games. Over the years it has increasingly become clear that gaming is not just something you do in your home; it’s part of who you are, and it ties you to other people no less than loyalty to a sports team. In any case I used this as an excuse to take a trip down memory lane.

2013

2012 was a year I’ll never forget, but I’m hoping the next one will be much less eventful. I’m ready for a little more peace, and a little less excitement.

Of course, I’ve also ended up in an industry that is changing at an insane pace. So, in my professional life, “peaceful” is probably not the adjective of choice.

But I’ll settle for being in the same city, with the same jobs, by this time next year!

Parting Ways With 2011

2011 was a year of turmoil and misfortune. Nonbeliever though I am, I am tempted to say that it was a cursed year.

Some would point to the movements, which began in Tunisia and became then Arab Spring, and then spread around the world, and say that 2011 was in fact a year of hope. Unless these movements result in lasting, positive change, however, we will only be able to say that 2011 was a year of great upheaval and unrest.

I wish I could say that I will remember it as the year that I got engaged, but then, it was also the year my fiancée went to the emergency room three times for two complete freak accidents. I wish I could merely remember it as the year we spent five romantic days in San Francisco, culminating in the wedding of our two good friends. However, I cannot remember that without thinking also of the call I received the very last night there informing me that my aunt had passed away at the age of 59. What would have been her 60th birthday came and went earlier this month.

2010 concluded on a joyous note, as family gathered from far and wide to celebrate my grandmother’s 90th birthday. 2011 began with a tragedy, as her brother, 5 years her senior, passed away in early January. It was not unexpected, yet in my short life I’ve already learned that every passing is a surprise, no matter how anticipated. He was a great man, a loving father and uncle, and we were all thankful that he had made through nearly all of his 95 years of life without any mental deterioration whatsoever until near the very end.

I have since heard from friends and family that they lost loved ones and suffered several misfortunes in the first half of the year, but between my granduncle’s passing and the phone call I received in San Francisco, 2011 showed the potential for being a wonderful year.

Knowing me too well to trust my judgment on such matters, Catherine accompanied me to pick out a ring. So we made an appointment, and one Monday in April we took an early morning Bolt Bus up to New York City, where we made our way to a tiny little place in the Diamond District. We picked a beautiful ring, and celebrated with lunch at Le Bernadin. We would keep the trip a secret until I had formally proposed, meaning I had to come up with an excuse when my parents left me a worried voicemail because I hadn’t been flooding Twitter and Facebook the way I do on a typical day.

[blackbirdpie id=”60120396216795136″]

[blackbirdpie id=”60154260209418240″]

When the ring arrived a few weeks later and I proposed, we had a romantic dinner together at Cork, one of our favorite restaurants in the neighborhood. We then went through the age-old process of deciding who needed to be told first, followed by addressing the more modern question of “who do we want to make sure knows about this before we put it on Facebook?”

Once that was taken care of, announcing it on Facebook and Twitter was really very fun. Facebook automatically does this thing where it pulls up pictures that have both of us in it, it was very nice. Of course, the announcement ended up getting slightly overshadowed by a minor event you may have heard about that happened later that evening.

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We had been going back and forth on whether to go out to San Francisco for our friends’ wedding because of how big a commitment such a trip would be, but at a certain point we decided that we just did not want to miss it. So we turned the trip into our vacation. We used Airbnb to find an extremely affordable place to stay for five nights. We reached out to our friends who had lived in San Francisco before, and they reached out to their friends who were still there–and the response was overwhelming. On June 1st, we flew out to San Francisco armed with more than enough information about the restaurant and cultural scene there to ensure we would have a good time.

It was one of the best vacations I have ever had, if for no other reason than I shared it with her. It was also the first time that I was really able to appreciate the food culture of a place I was visiting; before I met Catherine I was an extremely picky eater, and although I had been to Paris and Madrid and elsewhere, I had not even attempted to enjoy the local cuisine. Catherine began broadening my tastes early in our relationship, and by the time we went to San Francisco I was trying everything and anything. It’s a beautiful city and we had a fantastic time. The wedding was wonderful and and a lot of fun, as well.

We were sitting in the little room we had rented in a flat in the Mission District late in the afternoon of June 5th, the day after the wedding and our last day in San Francisco. We were trying to decide what to do for dinner; at that stage in the trip neither of us were feeling very adventurous so we were thinking of what we could do that was close by. In the middle of this discussion I received a call from my mother. I could tell something was wrong, and I was afraid that something had happened to one of my grandparents. Then she told me it was my Aunt Mari, that she was gone.

I don’t really remember the initial explanation she gave me, and I wasn’t much good at conveying the details to Catherine. I was, frankly, in shock. How could this have happened? Catherine and I spent our last evening in San Francisco in a quiet, mostly empty wine bar, not far from where we were staying, trying not to think too much about the news which seemed bigger than my mind could begin to absorb.

2011 will always be the year that my Aunt Mari died.

The year did not go well after that, either. I don’t feel comfortable talking about all of it here out of respect for the privacy of the particular individuals, but several of our loved ones have struggled with health problems–physical, mental, and emotional. One of my best friends in the world had an anxiety attack on a scale that she had never experienced before. Several members of both of our families have ended up in hospitals. Catherine herself was there three times–once because she was hit by someone on a bicycle, and the other times after she accidentally splashed boiling water on herself. There is much about the year after our return from San Francisco that was truly wretched.

However, I am not so blind as to miss how lucky we really are, through all of this.

Much of our pain is the pain of seeing the people we love suffer, yet this is an unavoidable part of having so many wonderful people in our lives, from family to friends. The tragedies that have happened this year have shown me how truly lucky I am to know such truly good people. I am so proud to be joining Catherine’s family; the way they came together to support one another this year was very humbling. From friends and family alike, I saw people commit acts of love and kindness, big and small, for those who were hurting.

There is no one who I knew in January that I think less of now in December as a result of what transpired in between. 2011 was a troubling, awful year, but I wouldn’t have chosen to navigate through it with any other group of people than the ones I had.

I hope the journey we take through 2012 is a better, brighter one, but either way I am eternally grateful for the people I will be taking it with.