My Top Ten Books of 2020

TopTenBooks2020

It’s that time of the year for retrospection.

After posting my Top Ten Songs of 2020, I thought that a list of my favorite reading material would be good. I’ve had the privilege to read eighteen books (and counting) over the course of the last year. So, I didn’t read as many books as I did last year. But it was still more than an average year (I’m a pretty slow and deliberate reader). I took time to reflect and write up a little “book report” on each one, shortly after finishing it. So, I’ll link to my full write-up for each book, in case you want to read more — but for the purposes of this retrospective post, I’m going to limit myself to five words for each book.

Anyway: Out of the eighteen books I read in 2020, here are my Top Ten Books of the year, in ranked order:

  1. Peace Like a River, by Leif Enger
  2. The Ungrateful Refugee, by Dina Nayeri
  3. City of Thieves, by David Benioff
  4. The Color of Compromise, by Jemar Tisby
  5. The Moon is Down, by John Steinbeck
  6. The Killer Angels, by Michael Shaara
  7. A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, by Donald Miller
  8. The Lost Letters of Pergamum, by Bruce W. Longenecker
  9. The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson
  10. Where Men Win Glory, by Jon Krakauer

And again, for those who would appreciate more context, my explanations for each selection are included with the listing (reverse rank-order), below:


#10 – Where Men Win Glory, by Jon Krakauer

Military. Culture. War. Patriotism. Dysfunction.

#9 – The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson

American. Exhibition. Industrialization. Well-Researched.

#8 – The Lost Letters of Pergamum, by Bruce W. Longenecker

Insightful. Fiction. Biblical. Research. Faithfulness.

#7 – A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, by Donald Miller

Storytelling. Memoir. “Inciting Incident.” Inspiration.

#6 – The Killer Angels, by Michael Shaara

Civil War. Accessible. Character Development.

#5 – The Moon is Down, by John Steinbeck

War. Resistance. Human Nature. Freedom.

#4 – The Color of Compromise, by Jemar Tisby

Racism. Church. History. Heart-Breaking.

#3 – City of Thieves, by David Benioff

Plot-Driven. War. Comedy. Russian.

#2 – The Ungrateful Refugee, by Dina Nayeri

Honest. Vulnerable. Immigration. Convicting. Privilege.

#1 – Peace Like a River, by Leif Enger

Great Plains. Great characters. Faith.

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My Top Ten Songs of 2020

Top Ten Songs 2020

It’s that time of year for retrospection.

Earlier this month, I shared some observations supplied by Spotify regarding my and my friends’ music listening patterns from 2020. But, I don’t feel like frequency automatically dictates favorites. At least, I’ve been thinking about my picks for this year, and I can verify that my Spotify Top Ten is not the same as my actual, all-things-considered, comprehensive Top Ten for the year.

So I want to share my real Top Ten listing here, where I can provide more context and then (in the coming days) also segue into other “Top Ten” listings for 2020.

I’ll start with a simple listing. Here are my Top Ten Songs of 2020:

  1. Fields and Pier (Avriel and the Sequoias)
  2. It Would Be You (Ben Rector)
  3. Rainbow (Kacey Musgraves)
  4. A God Like You (Kirk Franklin)
  5. Missed Calls (MAX, featuring Hayley Kiyoko)
  6. 2020 (Ben Folds)
  7. Dole Teifi / Lliw’r Heulwen (Cynefin)
  8. Whatcha Say (Havana Maestros featuring Jason Derulo)
  9. Playing on My Mind (The 1975)
  10. Opus 28, Number 15, in D-Flat Major (Composed by Frédéric Chopin, Performed by Susanne Grutzmann)

And for anyone who might appreciate more context, my explanations for each selection are included with the listing (reverse rank-order), below:


#10 – Opus 28, Number 15, in D-Flat Major (Composed by Frédéric Chopin, Performed by Susanne Grutzmann)

I knew about this song long before 2020. But I was reminded of it when the piece appeared in an episode of the series, The Crown. It was so somber, so melancholy, and it felt perfectly suited for the sad scene on the show and the sad scene of the COVID shut-down that we were experiencing at the time. So I kept listening to it, and it became a sort of anthem — or really, a dirge — for my experience of the pandemic. Those were sad and scary times, back in the spring, but the music was helpful. So I really do consider it a top song for the year, even if it represents a low point in terms of actual life experience.

#9 – Playing on My Mind (The 1975)

I’m not very good about keeping up on the latest musical releases. But fortunately, I’ve got other people in my life who are! I heard about The 1975’s new album on a run with my friends Mark and Tyler (both of whom have impeccable music taste). I really enjoyed a number of the tracks from this album, but my favorite was “Playing on My Mind.” Kind of wistful, but also a little bit cheeky like I’d expect from The 1975.

#8 – Whatcha Say (Havana Maestros featuring Jason Derulo)

I discovered this song on a collaborative playlist created by my friends, Meg and Dylan. The song samples its chorus from Imogene Heap’s “Hide and Seek,” which had been shared with me by my brother several years ago. But the reference was so camouflaged with Latin instrumentation and rhythms that it took me awhile to make that connection. When I figured it out, though, it took this from being a solid bop to being a Top Ten Song for the year. There’s nothing incredibly meaningful about the song for me. It’s just a fun and catchy tune.

#7 – Dole Teifi / Lliw’r Heulwen (Cynefin)

I have no idea what this song is about because it’s entirely performed in Welsh. Still, I love the sound of the language and the sound of this music. Cynefin might actually be my favorite new artist of 2020. I found him while searching for music to accompany our family’s trip to Wales, which never actually materialized because of COVID travel restrictions. But hopefully, someday I’ll be able to united this excellent music with that excellent country.

#6 – 2020 (Ben Folds)

I love Ben Folds. I’ve loved him for many years. But his take on this strange year has made me love him even more. Be warned that there’s one instance of profanity at a pretty central moment of the song. It doesn’t feel gratuitous, though, given the song’s subject. Overall, the song is clever, catchy, and a fitting tribute to this most unusual year.

#5 – Missed Calls (MAX, featuring Hayley Kiyoko)

I learned about this song through my oldest son, Elliot. It’s also got some explicit lyrics, and it doesn’t speak to my life in any particular way. But it’s such a catchy song. The main line of the chorus is also a pretty clever play on words. And for about two or three weeks in September, this was one of the first songs that I’d be playing on any drive in the car.

#4 – A God Like You (Kirk Franklin)

This song was featured in the introduction to the Michelle Obama documentary film, Becoming. It got stuck in my head so quickly, though, that I looked it up on Spotify. It’s got a fun energy. It’s straight-up Gospel Music, but it also feels like it could be pretty mainstream. It became the first song in our family’s summer road trip playlist, which is always a short track to Top Ten status in my way of absorbing new music. Its lyrics are also a generally-accurate statement of my beliefs and life philosophy (unlike a lot of the other songs in this Top Ten listing).

#3 – Rainbow (Kacey Musgraves)

I have no memory of how I found this song. But I do remember that I happened to be reading The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes at the time, and somehow both the lyrics and the tone of the song reminded me of the book’s main protagonist. It also feels like a ballad for 2020, with an encouragement to seek hope in the midst of life’s storms and to always be looking for the rainbows that come along with the rains.

#2 – It Would Be You (Ben Rector)

I have a vague memory of seeing two friends post their reaction to this song on the same day back in the Spring sometime. When I listened to it, I liked the tune immediately. Strong 1980s vibes, with a lot of synthesizer. It just felt like a “summer bop.” As I listened to it more, however, I started to appreciate more and more of the song’s significance for our year of quarantine, isolation, and pandemic apocalypse.

#1 – Fields and Pier (Avriel and the Sequoias)

Gosh. I don’t know exactly how to describe my feelings about this song. But it’s the best song. Not just from this year; maybe even from the last few years. It just feels like a velvety blanket to wrap around my soul on a cold, foggy day. My favorite part is the break after the first chorus, when the artist matches his voice to a cello for a magical little interlude.

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Farmyard Christmas

We gathered together with Marci’s family in Richland County for Christmas Day. Which we always do. But we did it out in the farmyard this year, instead of inside the farmhouse. Which, actually, we have done under certain conditions: if it’s been a particularly warm, sunny day or if the boys and I have wanted to try out some new sports equipment.

This Christmas, however, did not happen to be a particularly warm day (wind chill probably made it about zero degrees Fahrenheit). The boys also didn’t have any new sports equipment to try out. Still, Richland County happened to be the only one in our state recently listed at Level 4 “Purple” coronavirus risk level — the highest level listed on Ohio’s Public Health Advisory System. And with some relatives who came from out of state to visit Marci’s parents for the holiday, we asked if everyone would be willing to have a fireside, Farmyard Christmas.

It wasn’t ideal. But we went for it: a Farmyard Christmas Day to go along with our Driveway Christmas Eve. So our household drove an hour and a half to spend an hour and a half together outside and then drive an hour and a half back to Kent.

We might be crazy. But we’re family. We made it work. No food, no gifts. Just family time. Still, it was nice. Our Farmyard Christmas turned out to be unique and memorable and hard.

We even took some time to throw around an old football for awhile, diving into the snow for extra-dramatic catches. Hopefully, though, none of us caught COVID from each other. And hopefully, we’ll get to have warmer, more comfortable Christmases together in the years to come.

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Driveway Christmas

My parents, my sister’s family, and my family gathered together for Christmas Eve. Which we always do. But we did it in our driveway. Which we never do.

I’m not going to pretend like it was “pure magic,” even with the rapid accumulation of an inch or two of snow while we were together. The truth is that it was awkward and uncomfortable. It’s difficult to sip a hot drink, open a present, hold a conversation, practice standard precautions against the spread of COVID-19, and keep an umbrella over one’s head all at the same time! God bless my family, though. They were troopers. We all managed to maintain positive attitudes and make the most of circumstances.

We kept warm with a combination of electric blankets, two fire pits, one propane heater, and layers of clothing.

We kept our germs to ourselves, following the advice of health experts with a combination of fresh air, staying six feet apart from each other for most of the time, and wearing coordinated masks (gifted to the family by my mother) over our mouths and noses for the times when we did find ourselves in closer proximity.

And we kept Christmas traditions alive, with a reading from the second chapter of Luke… the opening of gifts, one at a time, from youngest to oldest… and exchanging the elements of our traditional Swedish Meatball feast to be enjoyed back at home later in the evening.

In the evening, my parents and I reconvened on Zoom for a video conference with my brothers (one living in Minnesota, one living in Texas). It was good to check in with each other and know that we’re all doing fine, through this unusual year and this unusual holiday season.

The whole Christmas Eve experience was unique. Memorable, too, I expect. But I’m not going to over-romanticize it. It wiped me out. Still, I’m glad we persevered. And I’m hopeful that we won’t have to do it again next year.

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Frosty Frolic 2020

The official 2020 version of Canton’s Frosty Frolic 5K was cancelled months ago. Just another casualty of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Even so, our family decided that we wanted to organize our own, unofficial, 2020 edition of the Frosty Frolic anyway. With just the five of us. So we each wore a Frosty Frolic running shirt from one of the previous years’ races. Cor added a Santa hat. I added a stocking cap that included a checklist woven into the textile: ❑ Naughty ❑ Nice ☑ No Comment. We brought along all of the safety lights I could scrounge up from our house. And then we drove to the McKinley Monument in downtown Canton.

At the monument’s massive stone staircase, the scene was far different from a typical Frosty Frolic. No photo op with Santa and Mrs. Claus. No Frosty the Snowman mascot bumping around the starting corral. No other runners in ridiculous holiday attire. We did an abbreviated warm-up in the parking lot, but it was cold enough that we were eager to get started — and since there was no official start-time, we just coordinated the start time on our smart watches and set out on the usual course through the light displays of Stadium Park.

I was a little bit worried about car traffic, but that turned out to be surprisingly minimal. Most of the light displays were similar to how they’ve been in previous years, except for the candy cane factory. It’s one of our favorites, since it creates the illusion of giant candy canes shooting over our heads as we run along the road. But it was dark this year, inexplicably shut-down. Like so much of the rest of 2020.

Still, we persevered.

The boys sang songs about goose poop. The girls worked through minor points of discomfort. The kids all crossed the “Finish Line” together, hand-in-hand. And then Marci and I did the same for our “Finish Line” experience. There were no cookies or plastic cups of hot chocolate waiting for us this time. No bananas or bottles of water. Still, it felt significant to establish some sense of normalcy in a situation that was not normal.

After the “race,” we learned that one of the benefits of a COVID Christmas version of the Frosty Frolic is that it didn’t take us long to get out of the parking lot, and it didn’t take us long to get a table at Carrabba’s for our traditional post-run feast. The kids stuffed themselves with carbohydrates: bar-mixed Cherry Cokes, bread, and pasta. Marci and I enjoyed our favorites. And then we drove back to Kent through the darkness and fog.

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The Lost Letters of Pergamum

I recently finished reading Bruce W. Longenecker’s book, The Lost Letters of Pergamum. My friend Daniel loaned the book to me. For him, the book had been assigned seminary reading. For me, however, Daniel thought it might just be an interesting pleasure read.

Turns out he was right.

The concept for the book is drawn from a rather obscure passage in the New Testament of the Bible. Revelation 2:12-13 reads, “To the angel of the church in Pergamum write: These are the words of him who has the sharp, double-edged sword. I know where you live — where Satan has his throne. Yet you remain true to my name. You did not renounce your faith in me, even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was put to death in your city — where Satan lives.” And that’s really all that the Bible has to say about the city of Pergamum and/or the person of Antipas. But from this one reference, along with other research, Longenecker builds out a whole scene and set of characters that prove to be surprisingly credible and consistent with the rest of the New Testament. And surprisingly insightful, too!

I especially appreciated the glimpse into some of the social dynamics and cultural dynamics of the 1st Century Church. I knew about some of these historical differences that were at play. Still, it somehow became more real to track them through a story like this one. The characters in this story helped me to better understand and empathize with different individuals from that time period: Roman noblemen, Jewish peasants, slaves, etc. The plot of the story also revealed how someone outside of the Jewish faith tradition would have been inclined to receive the Gospel.

The story had legs, too, as an actual narrative and not just as an illustrative device. The character of Antipas, in particular, has an intriguing arc (even though the reader knows from the introduction what’s going to happen to him by the end). I’ll confess there are moments where the dialogue is a bit awkward and forced. But by and large, the plot is compelling. I’m glad that I made this book my first cover-to-cover read of the Winter Break. And I commend it to anyone else looking for education and entertainment.

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The Similarities between Car Ownership and Dog Ownership

There are some fascinating similarities between car ownership and dog ownership. I was on a Zoom call last week with one of the H2O Life Groups I help to coach, when we made the discovery. I don’t know. Maybe “discovery” is too strong of a word. Still, we had fun with it.

Try the comparison on for size and see what you think.

The lifetimes of a typical car ownership situation and a typical dog ownership situation are similar lengths. There are similar options for “purebred puppies” versus “mutts adopted from the shelter.”

They’re both super-special and doted upon in the early going. As time passes, however, they become a normal part of life for a decade or two. Late in life, they start to grow more decrepit and unreliable. But there’s a level of emotional attachment that accommodates the increased inconvenience… Until it’s finally time to move on.

Does that sound about right to you? Is it callous to compare a piece of machinery with a living being?

We thought it was hilarious when we made the connection. I realize that it doesn’t sound so funny to write it all out, after the fact. But at the time, I had tears in my eye and a stitch in my side, especially when Regan was talking about the moral conundrum her family experienced when they watched a neighbor’s dog get hit by a car but they couldn’t figure out the best way to put the animal out of its misery. It seems like everyone has a story about a beloved car and/or dog.

We also had a good study of Acts chapter 23 before calling it a night.

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Peace Like a River

I recently finished reading Leif Enger’s novel, Peace Like a River. I heard about it from The Holy Post. And as the source of the recommendation might suggest, the book definitely has a Christian flavor. But it is not the standard “Christian book.” There’s nothing formulaic or contrived about it (which, I’m sad to say is true more often than not in the world of Christian fiction). The broader literary community celebrated the work at the time of its release. For instance, it made the list of “Best Books of 2001” for both the Los Angeles Times and Time Magazine. And regardless of what others might think or say about the book, I found it just a lovely story, lovingly rendered, with lovable characters.

I like the summary that the author posted on his own website. Consequently, I won’t go too far into synopsis myself. But I will say that it’s a book about a father and his three children. (They just so happen to be two boys and one girl, just like my kids!). They make stumbling attempts at lives of faith and righteousness. Still, they encounter lots of difficulties. They suffer tragedy and loss. But they also find beauty along the way. Largely from the vantage point of an Airstream trailer out on the Great Plains of North America.

There were a lot of things to love about this book. The characters are noble-but-flawed, entirely believable. The settings are places that I love (the prairies of Minnesota and the Badlands of North Dakota). The action and plot of the story are compelling. I think the book reveals deep truths about our world and ourselves. At the same time, it never feels preachy.

It’s not often that I finish a book and immediately order two copies to give to others, but that’s what happened with this one. I highly recommend this book as a wintertime read. (A lot of the story is set in deep winter, too, so that’s kind of a cool feature). And I hope to explore some of Enger’s other writing sometime soon.

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Talking to our Team

I don’t get to talk to the people from our Ministry Team all that often. I try to stay pretty consistent with monthly letters. But quieter part of the semester, like right now as all the students are preparing for final projects and final exams, present a special opportunity. I like to take time to check in over the telephone during times like this. And it really is lovely to hear what’s happening with all these friends, relatives, and strategic ministry connections.

Today, I checked in with ministry partners in Ohio, Minnesota, South Dakota, Montana, Texas, Kentucky, New York, and Florida. COVID hasn’t been easy for anyone. But I found myself strangely encouraged to hear the way that people are dealing with things and finding ways to carry on.

My pastor friend in Mansfield (Ohio) has four kids who are scattered to the four winds of the United States. His oldest son is looking to move to the Shenandoah Mountains of western Virginia for a new job. (Yes, people are still finding new jobs in 2020!). Another one of his sons is in the Baltimore area, trying to teach music to high school students on-line. His daughter moved to Miami just before the start of the pandemic, and it’s been a lonely, frustrating year. Still, they’re all figuring things out.

My radiologist friend in Rapid City (South Dakota) reported that their family’s lives remain surprisingly unaffected by COVID. He and his wife are doing their part to prevent the spread of COVID. They wear masks. He helped their church to set up live-streaming options for the elderly congregants. And they now skip their traditional end-of-the-week Happy Hour downtown. He told me that the hospitals in Rapid City (and Sioux City, and Casper, and Bismark) are full. Consequently, they are diverting patients to Denver. Still, they’re OK with biding their time, waiting things out.

I talked to computer-programming friend while he was on a break between meetings in Redmond (Washington). He’s working for Microsoft. Not too surprisingly for a tech guy, he was happy that his whole life is online. Microsoft Teams (for work) and Discord (for personal stuff) these days. His sources at Microsoft tell him that the earliest possible date for re-opening their physical office spaces is July 2021. And they don’t expect life to get back to normal until November 2021.

My friend who works in the book publishing industry is currently living in Melbourne (Florida), with her sister. She enjoys her job, even (or perhaps especially) while working remotely. Church is all online, too. She says it’s hard to find Christian community during COVID. Varying attitudes about COVID precautions make it even more challenging than usual. Even with the challenges, though, she sounded generally hopeful about life.

My realtor friends in Richland County (Ohio). They’re now in their 70s. They’ve been on our ministry team for 20 years. They’ve hunkered down all year, ordering groceries from the local Kroger. They’re super-bored. But also super faith-filled. And they are so, so grateful for the ministry that we’re doing to reach college students. The one friend finished the call by telling me that he loved me. And I said I loved him, too.

I was tired out by the end of the afternoon, after all those calls with all those people (and many others), but my heart was also full with gratitude.

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Awkward Eagle Saves the Day

Awkward Eagle Saves The Day

I’ve got several friends in Northeast Ohio who have recently come down with COVID-19. Several others are in quarantine because they came in close contact with someone who has the virus. Fortunately, none of them are dangerously sick. Still, it’s sad to see so many friends dealing with the physical discomfort, loss of income, limitation of personal freedom, general hassle, and boredom of being stuck at home. I remember our own family’s experiences back in April, and I want to help.

Consequently, I’ve been trying to regularly pray for my friends, check in on my friends, and regularly drop off things that my friends might need or want (all while practicing good precautions against the spread of COVID). I hope that these friends have benefitted from these efforts. And regardless, I’m discovering that our family is benefitting from these efforts, too! It’s surprisingly fun to practice community and demonstrate care in creative ways. It feels both Christian and Christmassy. (So seriously: if you ever catch the Coronavirus, don’t deprive your friends of the joy of helping you out!)

Planning

This week provided an opportunity for an extra-special, extra-strange way of helping two friends who have been in quarantine since Thanksgiving. Let’s call them Deborah, and Esther. We dropped off some items for Deborah in the early part of the week. But we didn’t have any good ideas for Esther until the middle part of the week, when Deborah somehow stumbled across an idea for Esther that she passed along to me by text message:

Hello Eric! This is a silly thing, but do you think you’d be willing to get some Sprite Cranberry and drop it off at Esther’s house? I think it would give her a boost today.

For whatever reason, Sprite Cranberry has been kind of hard to come by in our region this year. I guess it has something of a cult following (Don’t ask why!). Anyway, Marci had randomly come across a two-liter of Sprite Cranberry earlier in the week, and she bought it on impulse. So it was just sitting in our garage. It felt like destiny.

It just so happens that I live with a minor TikTok celebrity. He contributes regularly to the MilkDad account and has recently started a new account called AwkwardEagle which also seems to be quickly gaining momentum. One of the Eagle’s main schticks is that he loves Sprite Cranberry like a beloved child (Again: Don’t ask why!). So I recruited the Awkward Eagle, a.k.a. Elliot, to devise a special plan for dropping off our bottle of Sprite Cranberry on Esther’s porch.

Execution

We started with writing a poem and attaching it with ribbon to the bottle of Sprite Cranberry.

Sprite Cranberry Poem

During this special time of year,
Sprite Cranberry brings joy and cheer.
Cold and frosty as the night,
Please enjoy this sweet delight.

A Wise Eagle

We drove the gift over to Esther’s house and filmed the drop-off, with the Awkward Eagle playing the role of “Santa.” Elliot later edited the footage to create a new post for the Awkward Eagle account. And even though I can recognize that I might be a little bit biased, I think it came out beautifully.

@awkwardeagle

POV: You go with the eagle to deliver a Sprite Cranberry #spritecranberry #meme #weird #pov #selenanetflix #WildAnimals #BagelBopsContest

♬ lil globglogabgalab – Cool kid

We figured that Esther would probably not have Elliot’s telephone number saved in her phone, so he sent a mysterious text after we got home:

“Hello, Esther. A most delicious Sprite Cranberry awaits you on your doorstep.”

Her response: “Santa?”

After some further banter, Esther texted back: “SO MANY QUESTIONS.” And it got more fun from there. Elliot and I collaborated on our responses to her text messages, toying with her, trying to sustain the mystery for awhile. Not to annoy, but to entertain (we hoped). Eventually, however, Esther cracked the case — apparently through a parallel dialogue with Deborah. And that was fun, too, reviewing “Game Tape” and providing “Color Commentary.”

COVID is a disruptive force in our world today. But not all disruption is bad. It can provide an opportunity for creative stimulation and unique connection. If you or someone you know is struggling with COVID / isolation / quarantine, please let me know how we might be able to help you. I can’t promise that the Awkward Eagle will be involved every time. But I also can’t promise that he won’t.

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