The Best of Ordinary Times 2019
This was a strong year for Ordinary Times, with contributions from many different authors. It included strong debuts from new voices and dynamite content from our regular contributors. Our posts covered everything from politics to science to feminism to literature to law to history to race. And our comment boards remained a place of civilized discussion and pretty astonishing tangents. The list of most popular posts included contributions from all of our contributors. Making OT soar this year was truly a group effort.
So as we complete the Earth’s latest revolution around the Sun, I thought it might be fun to highlight the bests post of 2019. Over the last week or two, I’ve been pinging editors and contributors for nominations for the best posts of 2019. This proved an extraordinarily hard task because we had so many great posts that going through the archives was like drinking from a firehose. But we eventually narrowed it down to a few dozen and it became clear which were the favorites of our editing and writing staff. If a post you liked (or wrote) does not show up here, don’t be too miffed. We had a lot of great content.
This year saw an overhaul of the website, which we can thank Will for. The transition was seamless, and the site has gone on with barely a hitch ever since. Another big shoutout goes to our editors — Will, Andrew, Em, Vikram, Scott and Sam — who ironed out everyone’s grammar, spelling and HTML (with occasional assists from other contributors). No one gets paid for any of this, so pageviews and adulations are the only thanks they get (although I am reliably informed that Andrew has Paypal). None of this would be possible without the efforts of these great people so they can take at least partial credit (and in some cases, most of it) for the quality content I highlight below.
Now, onto the posts:
This year saw two symposiums — one on the Democratic primary and the other on pizza. Neither has an entry in this year’s top ten, but both featured some of our best and most varied writing. It was astonishing to see Andrew throw out a topic and see the many different and fascinating directions our writers took it in.
We eventually narrowed down our selection to 32 posts. The following lists the honorable mentions — those that made the initial cut, but not the top ten. All are excellent. We had:
- Avi wrote a post on Kevin Williamson which drew a response from Williamson himself.
- Em and Kristin’s dueling Peloton posts
- From Em, we had our second most popular post about the lies in a video about West Virginia as well as Lessons from A Bike Thief and a look at the mother figures throughout the Harry Potter saga.
- From Kristin, we had her Veronica Mars posts and Defenders of the Gold Bikini.
- New contributor Starla Jackson gave us a thoughtful reflection on science, empiricism and wokeness in The Unbearable Whiteness of being Empirical.
- New contributor Randolph Brickey took a look at the criminal justice system in The Definition of Insanity.
- New contributor Teri Peters took a look at one of the most critical issues of today with The other Victims of the Opioid Crisis.
- New contributor Katie Gordon gave us some great insights in a post about the Joker and mental health.
- New contributor Tracy Downey wrote about Selma Blair and MS.
- Our revered editor in chief showed he could still bring it with a post about OJ Simpson.
- Genya gave us a funny and insightful play by play of an election from the poll volunteers’ point of view.
- Ordinary Bookclub made a return.
- Andrew, our most prolific writer, gave us posts on making food, the magic and majesty of pipe organs, the VA, Pearl Harbor and D-Day.
- Rufus wrote about an artist, trauma and resilience.
- And I wrote about Yom Kippur.
All of those were great posts, and you can tell how hard selecting the best was. I won’t argue with anyone who thinks anything on that list was the best of the year. But, ultimately, you have to make choices. So, in the opinion of the editors, contributors and, well, mostly me, to be honest, here are the ten best posts of 2019, presented in chronological order because, honestly, I don’t see how you can rank such good writing in such fine detail.
1. In April, Andrew gave us his thoughts on the burning of Notre Dame:
Personifying and mythmaking as we might around such a grand structure, the truth is it is an arrangement of stone, and wood, and a hundred other things. The people who built it, and lived around it, and entered and marveled at it, deemed what importance it held. Whether Mass was being recited in Latin and later French, or revolutionaries were stripping saints out and declaring reason supreme, Napoleon returning it to Rome’s control, or a dozen other instances where man steered the fate of the great stone refuge, Notre Dame stood and endured regardless. Loved or neglected, worshiped in or cursed at, for nearly a millennium since work started on the island in the Seine the cathedral stood as mankind moved, a stoic pivot point around which the affairs of men spun.
2. Our most popular post of the year was Avi Wolf’s May post on Diablo III and the Death of God, which showed us that video games can be as morally complex and insightful as any “high art”:
It is easy to mock the above analysis; after all, great thinkers have done a much more penetrating job in investigating these questions than a simple computer game meant as much for children as adults. But this is to miss an important point, a fundamentally human point noted especially by GK Chesteron in many of his articles – most people form their way of thinking based not on abstract philosophy but on stories, on characters they identify with, on goals that inspire. So it was when tribal members sat round the campfire, and so it is today as we debate the ethics or lack thereof in Game of Thrones.
3. In June, Michelle Kerr wrote about the emotional devastation that descended upon a school when a beloved teacher was accused of sexual harassment:
The story of our school reeling in shock after the earthquake revealed by Dave’s abuse is trivial compared to the trauma of an adolescent who is betrayed by a trusted adult. As my telling suggests, no one I spoke to in those early days appeared to give more than a passing thought to the accuser, whose identity none of us knew. Our principal told us she was getting help, we believed that without question, and gave that matter little further thought. Even now I flinch from the memory of that day not because a student had been abused, but because my good faith in a fellow teacher had been ripped away.
4. Also in June, Andrew reflected on West Virginia’s past, present and future:
What makes West Virginia special, what makes it unique, what inspires so much pride and loyalty of its people both there and in the diaspora that is puzzling to those who don’t understand it, cannot be extracted. It can only be instilled. While outsiders debate the merits and hindrances of the culture they cannot define let alone understand most West Virginians just know it. Like the old saying, if you have to have jazz explained, you will never understand it, those mountains and those people and the centuries of tempered hopes, shattered dreams, and determination that next time will be better are just a part of you or it isn’t. Like the long strands of unbroken hills that wall it off from the wider world, the culture is just there and just is.
5. Sometime in September, Burt tweeted out a picture of himself in a brewpub and swore he was working on his Nixon post. He was. And when it came, it was fantastic, breaking down one of the most important cases in SCOTUS history in a way the even us non-lawyers could understand:
It was painful for the nation to live through the consequence of the decision – painful but necessary, such that even his most fervid supporters had no choice but to see Richard Nixon for who he truly was. The “smoking gun” tape alone demonstrates the extent to which Nixon tried to subvert the rule of law, so that he personally could hold on to political power.
Two generations’ worth of perspective allows us to see with some clarity that removal of such a man from the government’s highest office, from the position of trust and honor inherent in the presidency, was necessary.
(And a tip of the keyboard to Em, who breaks down important cases every week. I couldn’t single out one particular one because they were all so good!)
November proved to be an extraordinary month though, with five our best posts going up that month.
6. Our friend Em has lost friends in the last year. One death hit her particularly hard and she wrote a heart-wrenching post to remember her friend and rage at the opioid epidemic devastating the country:
I am angry that I let her friendship go so long ago that I didn’t know she was on this road. I’m angry that she didn’t settle down and progress past our wild high school days and instead plunged headlong into the scary grown-up version of that world. I’m angry that she would put her little boy through this. I’m angry at myself for being angry with her, when I know enough about addiction to understand that it’s not that simple. I’m angry with that motherfucker who supplied her with the instrument of her eventual death and then let her lay there, and who, I’m told, did a lot more than watch her start dying.
7. Burt only wrote four pieces for us this year, but two of them made this list. The second was his meditation on the passing of time, the past, the pain of divorce, and moving on in High Sierra Ghost Stories:
Avoiding the past – hiding from it – is a fool’s errand that can’t succeed. It might be that if I refuse to address the pains from my past, they’ll just moulder like the shell of what used to be a 1970s head shop turned into… actually, the building I’m thinking of now is still being used as a head shop, but these days there’s a dispensary next door for easy one-stop shopping. Nevertheless, good Reader, I trust that you take my point.
8. Em contrasted the “poverty porn” that constitutes most of the media’s perfunctory coverage of West Virginia with the much more sympathetic view of the late great Anthony Bourdain:
He didn’t interview the Trump supporters, the gun enthusiasts, or the coal miners just to get a soundbite at which the rest of the world could shake their heads knowingly. He had discussions. He didn’t condescend; he engaged, expressed his own view and asked questions, with sincerity and a willingness to hear the answer rather than to capture proof of a preconceived assumption.
What Bourdain did so well was to find common ground and a way to relate. He remarked upon the similarities between an impoverished rural community and a poor area of an inner city. He found a way to connect despite the obvious differences in that way of life and his own.
9. Kristin wrote a lot of great pieces this year about feminism in pop culture. Her best was a look at A Star is Born, which gave me an entirely different way of looking at this multiply-remade film:
As you probably surmised, A Star Is Born is not a morality play. It’s not a dramatization of the way people should behave in an ideal world. There are absolutely problematic and disturbing elements in this movie. A woman suffers due to the actions of a man, it’s true. Regardless, ASIB is still highly feminist, because it investigates issues of male-female interaction in a thought-provoking and entirely necessary way. And it pulls it off so well precisely because it’s telling a story, not preaching a sermon.
10. And our final “Best Of” was Kristin’s devastating post on the Mayflower slaves. When Andrew asked my thoughts on this one before it was published, I knew I was looking at one of the best posts anyone would write this year (unless Kristin herself surpassed it before the year was out).
Many people, I suspect, believe that in the same place and time they would make better decisions than our ancestors did. They would be more selfless, more kind, more generous. But if you had to make the impossible Sophie’s Choice of allowing another child in your care to die, or even just making it more likely that they died, in order for your own children to live, what would you do? Would you resist the urge to put a little more food in your child’s bowl? If you had one pair of mittens or long underwear and everyone was shivering, who would you give them to? If there was a dangerous job to be done, who would you send do it? Would you always be as diligent about watching another person’s child every minute of the day as you were your own? Would you be monitoring them quite as closely for signs of fever or infection? And even if you did do those things, could you keep it all up while working in the fields 8, 10, 12 hours a day, when you yourself had rickets and tapeworms and syphilis and were starving and hadn’t slept in days because you were up in the night with a sick child or a birthing cow?
Share your thoughts in the comments. Is there anything I missed? It’s been an honor to be on this blog which such amazing talent. I can’t wait to see what 2020 brings out of us.