January 1, 2021
I probably don't have to go into great detail about all the ways 2020 sucked. We've all been doomscrolling together, struggling to get through it in our own ways, hoping that a return to some semblance of normalcy was around the corner, only for a bunch of selfish, mask-less dipshits to prolong it even further.
A lot of people said that each day of the pandemic felt like the movie Groundhog Day, where Bill Murray relives the same day over and over again. But to me it felt more like Oldboy — the original/good one, not the American remake (sorry, Spike) — where Choi Min‑sik's character is abducted and locked alone in a room for 15 years.
There were a few bright spots though:
Hanging with Ryan. One positive of the pandemic was being able to spend more time with Ryan in the spring, when his daycare was affected by the shutdown. It's been so much fun watching him develop. This year he started walking and talking and it's wild to look back at how far he's come in the past year. I'm trying to enjoy every moment with him.
I'm on drugs! This spring was so stressful for everyone. On top of everything happening in the world, I was stressing out about work and life in general and started experiencing some weird symptoms which I attributed to the AFib episode I had a few years ago. Worrying about AFib caused me more anxiety, which made the symptoms worse. It was like an endless feedback loop.
It got so bad I went to the ER at one point. My resting heart rate was about 140 bpm. They ruled out AFib and chalked it up to anxiety, and gave me a couple of Ativan, which helped quite a bit. My doctor put me on a low dose of Lexapro to help with the anxiety, and I've been feeling a lot better ever since.
I've always been reluctant to go on medication because I worried that it would somehow dull my senses. But the Lexapro just makes me feel "normal." I still have the occasional episode of depression, but the crippling anxiety is all but non-existent.
Now that my life is a little less stressful, I'm starting to wean myself off the Lexapro to see if I can function normally without it.
If you're struggling with depression and/or anxiety, I would heartily recommend seeking counseling and going on medication if they advise it. It's definitely improved my quality of life.
I started a new job. Groupon was already struggling a bit to start the year. When your business model hinges on people leaving the house, a pandemic is the last thing you want. Groupon laid off nearly half the company in the spring, and those of us who were spared were left wondering when the other shoe would drop. For me, working on the design system felt like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.
In July my old manager, Tyler, reached out to me out of the blue and said he needed someone to come in and build a design system at his new company. So after nearly nine years at Groupon, I left to become the Senior Design Systems Engineer at Provi.
I spent the next few months bootstrapping the design system and Provi's CSS framework while helping the team ship new features. We used those features to inform what went into the design system, which helped us ship each successive feature even faster than the last.
I love being at a much smaller company where my work can have more impact and I don't have to spend as much time building consensus and convincing people to do things a certain way. The team at Provi is really great and we've already grown quite a bit just in the short time I've been there. I'm really excited to see where 2021 takes us.
I stepped up my home office game. I spent the last five years or so working remotely, even though the office was only a 30 minute drive away. My working space was not ideal though. I usually just sat at the dining room table with my laptop.
When I started my new job, I was determined to create a dedicated office space. I bought an adjustable standing desk (which I almost never adjust), a legit office chair, and bookshelf that serves a nice little backdrop for video meetings. I also bought a nice podcasting mic and figured out how to use my DSLR as a webcam.
Sitting right next to a window in a comfortable chair has improved my productivity (and mood) quite a bit. It's so comfortable that I've barely spent any time in my basement "man cave." I offered my 16-year-old stepson to swap the man cave with his second floor bedroom so that I can have a dedicated room for my office instead of the little addition that my wife and I currently share. He immediately took over the basement.
Meanwhile, Allie is excited about taking over that whole space and hasn't even waited for me to move my stuff before measuring the space and buying new furniture.
I started a new side-project. Starting a new job gave me a jolt of motivation (albeit a short-lived one). During that time I turned my interest in making websites with the static site generator Eleventy into a little side-project called 11ty Recipes.
I wanted to make the site I wish I had when starting out with Eleventy. Most pre-made boilerplates are chock full of features and pretty opinionated on their choices of dependencies. With 11ty Recipes, I wanted to make a site that let you add things to your site a la carte, with step-by-step instructions.
It got off to a nice start, including an amazing logo designed by my friend, Bert, but I've been pretty lax about keeping up with it. Something I hope to remedy in 2021.
I appeared on a couple of podcasts. When I gave my talk at University of Illinois in 2019, I spoke with Layshi Curbelo, host of the Command Z Podcast, about design systems and how they can help improve productivity and collaboration between designers and engineers. For those looking to convince their organization to create a design system, I suggested, “Don’t sell the system, sell the results.”
On Get it Out of Your System, I spoke with Dan Mall about how communication is one of the biggest challenges in establishing a design system. “A design system,” I said, “is not a design solution or an engineering solution. It’s more about people and process and how we talk to each other.”
It was weird hearing myself ramble on about design systems, but hopefully people got some useful tidbits out of it. I'd love to appear on a podcast to talk about literally anything other than design systems, which I tend to fall into all of the talking points I've developed over the years that I use to sell the idea to stakeholders.
I showed my appreciation with pizza. It's one thing to let people who have helped you in some way or otherwise made an impact on your life know they are appreciated but, this year especially, I thought it would be better to show my appreciation through the gift of pizza.
Tastes of Chicago is a great site that lets you ship Lou Malnati's pizza and other Chicago delicacies to people anywhere in the United States. As a married person especially, a recurring theme is "what should we do for dinner?" Tastes of Chicago helps solve that dilemma for at least one day, with some of Chicago's best eats. What better way to show someone you appreciate them?
We can access our attic now! We've lived in our house now for over five years and never used our unfinished attic. It was only accessible through a small hatch in a closet and there's no sub-floor up there. I had one of those hatches installed with the pull-down ladder and had them put down some sub-floor so we can actually walk and store stuff up there. Over the holiday break we've been working on getting rid of old stuff and storing the rest up in the attic. Out of sight, out of mind!
We raised over $6000 for Extra Life. This year I didn't expect to meet last year's total of just over $5,000 raised. As usual, however, people came out in droves to support our cause. We shattered our goal, raising $6,060 for Lurie Children's Hospital in Olivia's memory. Bert, Al and I all surpassed our individual fundraising goals for the first time as well. I continue to be awed and inspired by the support we've received over the past seven years, in which we've raised a total of $25,010 for sick kids. Thanks again to everyone who donated and cheered us on!
Things I loved in 2020
2020 was not a great year for movies, obviously. Lots of anticipated movies were pushed to 2021 or beyond as the pandemic forced a lot of theaters to close, some for good. 2021 might be even worse, since very few movies are being produced.
I had an ambitious goal of watching a movie a day in 2020. I was on track up until March, when the pandemic made me lose all motivation to watch movies. I finished the year with 138 movies watched — still a Letterboxd record for me — well short of 365.
This year, I'm planning a far less time-consuming goal: watching a single movie I haven't seen from each year since the year I was born (1975). We'll see how it goes.
In the meantime, there were some solid movies in 2020, particularly towards the end of the year, that I really enjoyed.
Sound of Metal Riz Ahmed is captivating as a drummer who loses his hearing and has to come to terms with it. Incredible sound design really helps you feel what Riz's character Reuben is going through. Really a remarkable film.
Possessor The synopsis had me at "corporate assassin" but I wasn't prepared to see the most inventive and disturbing movie of the year. Possessor does a great job of "show, don't tell." The process by which one is "possessed" is never explained but you very quickly understand it. Christopher Abbott is great in this. Incredible use of practical effects and some of the most disturbing body horror in years. I'd expect nothing less from the son of David Cronenberg.
Another Round I absolutely loved this. The most relatable film of 2020. Who among us has not considered maintaining a near constant state of drunkenness to overcome the monotony of our lives this year? There is a moment of catharsis in this film that brought me so much joy and hope that 2021 has better things in store for us. Great performance by Mads Mikkelsen, who is such an endlessly compelling actor to watch. Even when he's not doing or saying anything, every crease in his face seems to convey emotion.
His House An incredible debut from writer/director Remi Weekes. Along with films like Atlantics, I'm loving being able to see non-Western takes on the supernatural. The less you know about this one going in, the better.
Palm Springs A delightful take on the time loop genre. Maybe the most 2020 movie of 2020. I loved the chemistry between Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti.
You can find the rest of my favorite films of 2020 over on Letterboxd.
The Last Dance In such a dark time in our history it felt so good to re-live the most exciting time in my life — when the Bulls won six championships in eight years. I was so obsessed with this team that watching them fueled my interest in web development and sports journalism. I don't know where I would be today without this team.
While I had seen and vividly remember so many of the moments covered, this doc provides unprecedented insight from all of the people involved, from the team to their opponents to the media and notable Bulls fans. Most remarkably, however, is the degree of candidness shown by Michael Jordan as he reflects back on his storied career.
Ted Lasso A wonderful salve for the depression and anxiety of 2020. Jason Sudekis plays a college football coach who is hired to coach an English Premier League soccer team, having absolutely no experience or knowledge of soccer. Despite being unwelcome by the players and fans alike, (SPOILER ALERT) Ted Lasso wins them over with charm and optimism. I loved it.
Devs Alex Garland's Ex Machina follow-up that I wanted and didn't get with Annihilation. Breathtaking visuals and some thought-provoking ideas. Loved Nick Offerman as the CEO of a tech company pursuing a potentially world-changing technology at any cost.
Dave Rapper/comedian Lil Dicky (aka Dave Burd) stars in this exaggerated retelling of his rise to pseudo fame. Weaved around a bunch of childish dick jokes, there's some really poignant stuff, including an episode almost entirely featuring Dave's real-life hype man, GaTa, and his battle with bipolar disorder.
Middleditch & Schwartz Having spent several years studying writing and improv at Second City, I've watched (and performed in) my share of terrible improv shows. Thomas Middleditch and Ben Schwartz's three Netflix specials are a masterclass in long-form improv. They take an idea from the audience and flesh it out over the course of an hour, adding new characters, switching characters and generally fucking with each other while telling a coherent story.
How To with John Wilson A wildly entertaining documentary series from the producers of Nathan for You. New Yorker John Wilson explores various topics through humorous footage of the city which often takes him (and us) on unexpected tangents.
Ghost of Tsushima I've been meaning to write a whole post about how much I love this game. When it first came out I was comparing it (rather unfavorably) to Nioh 2, another action game set in feudal Japan that I absolutely loved. I played for a bit and then moved on to other games.
But then something incredible happened. Developer Suckerpunch released a free DLC of co-op content called Legends, which in itself could probably be a full-priced stand-alone game. My friends and I dipped into the 4-player horde mode and 2-player story mode, which take a game otherwise grounded in reality and add a supernatural twist.
Playing as one of four character classes, we built our characters up until we were powerful enough to take on the mode's biggest challenge, the Tale of Iyo raid. Ghost of Tsushima's raid definitely draws inspiration from games like Destiny, but is far more accessible. My friends and I had a blast playing this mode, and I went back into the single-player campaign and got all of the trophies. Even after a few hundred hours, the combat and visuals still feel fresh.
Ghost of Tsushima is hands-down my game of the year, and possibly one of the greatest games I've ever played.
Call of Duty I wrote earlier this year about how I got sucked back into Call of Duty, thanks largely in part to its Battle Royale mode, Warzone. After months of playing, I managed to secure my first solo win, 23.5 hours into my Extra Life stream, while I was delirious from lack of sleep. In the past week I managed another solo win and a couple of wins on the new, smaller Rebirth Island map. I'm still having a ton of fun with it, both solo and with friends. Integrating Black Ops: Cold War weapons and characters has breathed new life into Warzone as well.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons I will always look back fondly on ACNH as the game that got me through the early months of the pandemic. I connected with a bunch of web design folks, including people whose careers I've followed and have inspired me for years. It was surreal hanging out with them in this virtual world, trading items, hanging out in each other's homes and watching shooting stars. I've since moved on, but perhaps I'll dip back in sometime and see what new stuff they've added while I've been away.
Last of Us Part 2 I had high expectations for this sequel to 2013's narrative masterpiece, and it didn't disappoint. The plot was incredibly polarizing, but I enjoyed it quite a bit, aside from some bizarre character turns and a comically drawn out climax. There are so many quiet moments where mundane things we take for granted take on new meaning in a world torn apart by zombies. While Naughty Dog hasn't innovated too much on their combat systems over the years, it was still fun enough to keep me playing for ~30 hours.
Nioh 2 The sequel to the Soulslike that finally got me to appreciate the Dark Souls games improves on the first in just about every way. New systems, new weapons and a new story combined for a thrilling experience. Definitely a more technical game, combat-wise, than Ghost of Tsushima, Nioh 2 is incredibly challenging and satisfying when you finally master it. Sadly, we recently learned that this will be the last Nioh game. Hopefully we get something in the same vein that builds on this engine in the future.
Culturally Relevant With my driving almost non-existent this year, I didn't really have time for many podcasts. I wanted to call out Dave Chen's Culturally Relevant again this year. Dave mixed compelling interviews with his own personal experience of the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement. It was consistently solid all year. Dave recently started a Patreon in order to support his many content creation endeavors, which I eagerly signed on for. He has not disappointed with the stuff he's cranking out lately.
Heroes of the Pandemic
I wanted to call out a few people who helped get me through a rough year through their humor and optimism. These are my Heroes of the Pandemic.
Ian Abramson When Saturday Night Live went on hiatus at the start of the pandemic, comedian Ian Abramson took up the torch, creating his own bizarre version of SNL on his Twitch channel.
Nathan Apodaca A spontaneous TikTok video of Nathan Apodaca (aka Doggface208) skateboarding to work while drinking cranberry juice and vibing to Fleetwood Mac's Dreams not only catapulted him to internet fame, but even revived interest in Fleetwood Mac. The video scored the humble Apodaca a free truck and crates of Ocean Spray, among other things.
Nandi Bushell This 10-year-old drumming prodigy challenged Dave Grohl to a drum-off. Dave took up the challenge... and lost. Nandi is a delightful and energetic musician and I can't wait to see what she does next.
Sarah Cooper Comedian Sarah Cooper made a name for herself lip-syncing to clips of Donald Trump. Her career took off this year, netting herself a Netflix special and guest-hosting gigs on late night TV.
Blaire Erskine Erskine became internet famous with her straight-faced parodies of conservatives. So spot on, it was hard to tell whether they were characters or real people.
Alexandra Kyle Alexandra reenacts scenes from Sex in the City, lip-syncing every character except Samantha, who is played by her cat. It's pretty amazing.
Amber Ruffin Writer/comedian Amber Ruffin was a breakout star on Late Night with Seth Meyers in sketches like this one, where she lists all the things Donald Trump has done for black people. Amber now has her own show now on Peacock, where she continues to mix cutting commentary with delightful humor.
Matisse Thybulle Sixers rookie Matisse Thybulle took us inside the NBA bubble in Orlando last season, giving us an intimate look at his daily routine, the NBA's strict COVID protocols, and conversations with his teammates about the Black Lives Matter movement. Thybulle showed a great talent for hosting and editing and probably has a great career ahead in media after his playing career is done.
Eva Victor I loved Eva Victor's weird, manic characters. Here's one of a democrat reacting to the news that the President got COVID. Someone please give her a show.
Jeff Wright Jeff Wright went viral with Real Aliens Be Like and kept cranking out hilarious videos where he played all the parts. It landed him a writing gig on Late Night with Seth Meyers, where he's appeared on camera a few times already.
Looking forward to in 2021
Bye Trump! Barring some nightmare scenario, we'll finally be rid of the sociopathic narcissist that currently occupies the White House. He's inflicted so much damage over four years I can't even comprehend how 70 million people looked it and said, "more of that, please!" And on top of that they think they were somehow cheated out of millions more votes?
Even with Trump out of office, the damage he's done will take years, if not decades to recover from. I don't think anyone is excited about Joe Biden, but at least we'll have someone in charge who has the slightest bit of empathy and respect for the American people.
Remodeling our bathroom Spending almost an entire year in lockdown has made us realize how important it is for our space to be comfortable and usable. Our house is 100 years old and its bathrooms are like indoor outhouses. We're looking into expanding the upstairs one a little bit, enough for a soaking tub and separate shower. Someday we'd like to finish our attic and make it a master suite, but in the meantime we'll settle for a slightly nicer bathroom.
Traveling (hopefully) I miss traveling. I want to spare no expense in getting the hell out of Illinois as soon and as frequently as possible. I haven't given a ton of thought to destinations, but I'd like to visit new places and see old friends and eat myself into a food coma.
Taking it easy on myself If you know me you're probably thinking, Mike, you take it easy on yourself all the time. If there's anything this pandemic has reminded me of its that most of the stuff we think is so important is really not. I often remind people who get too serious about their work that they're not curing cancer (or COVID, as it were). I need to try to be in the moment, rather than dwelling on the past or worrying about a future that's out of my control. This is especially important to me with Ryan.
And really we need to take it easy on each other. It's hard not to blame individuals for bad behavior when "the system" only encourages it. Let's all try and offer each other more encouragement (via pizza or otherwise) and show people how much they mean to us. Because if this pandemic has shown us anything its how precious our time is together.
Except racists. Fuck them.