Lately, I’ve been thinking about the things I’d wholeheartedly recommend, and so why not play Oprah, or, maybe more realistically, a guest on How To Be Amazing (where they recommend five things at the end of every show). Because good things should be recommended (which is also why I started writing more Google reviews). I’ll make up my own categories, because one of the perks of writing a blog almost no one reads is you can do what you want.
Books: I wish I could be a little less mainstream this year, but the two books that absolutely mesmerized me (I even read them in the mornings before work!) are pretty big hits, and for good reason. First, Fredrik Backman’s Beartown, which is basically Friday Night Lights meets The Art of Fielding set in Scandinavia, and the first book I’ve read in a long time where I fretted about the characters when I wasn’t reading. I also kept taking screenshots of passages and sending them to my friend who’d recommended it, because it was just so good. It’s a book about hockey (which I don’t care about) and rape culture (which I do), and I was really impressed that a man handled the latter topic with such sensitivity and nuance. The second is Naomi Alderman’s The Power, which is a smart, thrilling investigation of what would happen to our world if all women could generate deadly electricity with their bodies. It’s a breezier, faster-paced Margaret Atwood book, and I couldn’t stop telling people about it. Apparently, the audiobook is also top-notch. Some days, what I wouldn’t do to feel a spark between my fingertips.
TV: Here’s an unsurprising pattern in the shows I love: they tend to feature powerful, complex women. And the shows I adored in 2018 are no exception. Killing Eve is a British drama starring Sandra Oh, whose character becomes obsessed with a female serial killer taking people out all over Europe, and with flair. (Think disguises, multiple languages, people killed with the contents of perfume bottles, that kind of thing.) What emerges is an amazing cat-and-mouse game between the driven investigator and the charismatic killer. It’s tense, it’s funny, it’s got great sexual tension. I saved watching the finale for my birthday because I loved this show so much. And just recently, we started watching The Marvellous Mrs. Maisel, about an upper-class housewife turned risqué stand-up comedian in late ’50s New York. Rachel Brosnahan has such charisma, such bravura, she is a complete delight to watch. (She won the Emmy and the Golden Globe for the role.) And who doesn’t love a well-produced period drama? Oh, and I almost forgot, the exception to the female-led show rule: I can’t forget the Queer Eye reboot, which was like a beautiful balm for the horrors of the world and a reminder of the importance of personal connection.
Podcast: I’ve recently really being enjoying the Future Perfect podcast by Vox, which applies an effective altruist’s lens to things like border control, organ donation, and eating fish. It’s short (under 25 minutes) well-edited, and offers smart takes on big issues. The episode on prison reform is a personal favourite. (And a quick note on the single episode category: RadioLab aired two episodes that were part of other projects, both of which were excellent and thought-provoking: “UnErased: Dr. Davidson and the Gay Cure” and “In the No, Part 1”, based on Kaitlin Prest’s miniseries about consent called No.)
Product: I was talking to my friend C about this the other day, but truly, I have had a magical year with this product, and I use it almost every day: the Sharpie water-based paint marker. Are you dazzled? You should be. This bad boy writes on glass or plastic (think: labelling all the things you have in the freezer, your preserves, your pantry staples) and washes off easily. If I were a better zero-waster, I’d go with a grease pencil, but somehow they always give you third-grade-boy handwriting. This marker writes gorgeously and adds real pizazz. Plus, I’ve had mine for just over a year, and it’s still going. (When I’m done, I’ll take it to the pen recycling at Staples.) It retails for less than $5.
Exercise: This isn’t just this year, but I want everyone to do pilates. And not the Pilates for Dummies tape that I did in the dorm basement in university, but going to an actual class with a live instructor. Pilates is so smart and physiologically informed: it can make your body feel brand new after an hour. And as someone whose job inflicts frequent neck pain, this reset is vital. I’ve never done the same sequence twice, and do new moves and combinations in every class. It’s also the kind of workout that you can do even if you’re tired: you work hard but in short bursts, and you never end up gasping for air or working to the point of muscle failure. It’s beautifully precise and controlled. It’s also something that people can do at any fitness level: my 80-year-old pal is a longtime devotee, and my dad’s a recent enthusiastic convert. I’ve been lucky to do semi-privates with the brilliant Andrea Palen for several years now, and she has a few videos you can do online for free. (I do the neck and shoulders one.) Classes in a studio are unfortunately expensive and not accessible to all, or, really, realistic for most (they can be up to $27/class here): the only workaround I have is to do pilates through ClassPass, which brings the cost for me down to $10-$12.50/class. I also had a great time at Misfit Studio this year, doing their classes that fuse pilates, dance, yoga, and a bit of strength training. I didn’t think it would be my vibe (it’s very tattooed, bodysuit, moon-ritual-and-sage-burning-type of place) but it made me less afraid of dance classes and able to lose myself in movement. Also, it smells really good there.
Habit: I love habits almost as much as Gretchen Rubin. (No one loves habits more than Gretchen.) And I’m pretty good at them. Keeping a gratitude journal every day has rewired my brain for the better. It sounds hokey, but I’ve found it really effective. Getting up early has also, so far, been really great for me. It’s meant making space to write posts like this one. Another game changer? Planning our meals a week at a time. This has meant for less daily brain drain, less food waste, money and time saved on groceries, meeting eating goals (for example, at least three vegetarian meals a week, avoiding too many carb-heavy meals), and equitable dividing of the cooking between me and my partner. And lastly, eating at the table was a surprising keystone habit. We’d eaten in front of the TV for years, and this bothered me on a low level—it seemed like failing some sort of couples’ test. Also while eating took 10 minutes, you’d watch the end of the show, get sleepy, and no one wanted to do the dishes anymore. Now we eat at the table most nights, then tackle the clean-up together, then watch TV. The dishes are always done and lunches are prepped, and no more squabbling over who should do the clean-up. We also watch a little less TV, which I consider to be a win, because while I love good TV (see above), watching mediocre TV makes me feel like I’m wasting my life.
Non-profit organization: I know, not usually a part of this list, but everyone should have one. I have at least 34, but internationally, I’m giving the most dollars to the Against Malaria Foundation, because I can be confident I’m getting good bang for my buck, thanks to their excellent GiveWell rating. (This is the non-profit of choice for most effective altruists.) Domestically, one of my great discoveries this year is The Boundless School, which helps kids at risk of dropping out get class credits in a supportive, hands-on environment out in nature.
Activity: One of the great, surprising joys of this year has been making scruffy, unconventional bouquets from my own garden. Though I’ve been a gardener for years, I’d been a more practical one, focusing on the edible over the ornamental. (Of course many plants are happily both.) Now flowers have my attention, but I’ve had great fun trying to figure out what else looks good in a bouquet: asparagus ferns? Mint leaves? Garlic bulbils? I tried looking up a bit about floral design and ended up quickly bored, and I’m mostly not working with conventional blooms anyway. Picking and making them has been a great exercise in creative thinking, in considering what’s at hand, in finding unexpected beauty. Which is a whole other thing I need to cultivate.
So there you have it. And while I can’t give these things to everyone who reads this, happily, you could basically try them all for the low-price of $5 and a streaming membership or two. Goop, I’m not. Because this isn’t about an aspirational lifestyle, and no one thing is revolutionary. But sharing and appreciating the smaller things, the things that are within reach, might be.