Today is the last day of 2019. As I get older I find that the turn of a new year is less and less consequential (perhaps that’s because it gets harder to stay up until midnight!) I remember years ago on this blog I would do multiple year-end wrap-up articles, but as we now move into a new decade and my projects have become so much more multi-various, I find I’m not so much into that anymore. Nonetheless, I thought I would mark the end of the year, as I did last time, by showcasing what I think was my best work of the past 12 months.
Because I have numerous projects, much more than just this blog, only a few of the entries are blog articles. But here is what I’m most proud of in 2019.
While I didn’t produce as many episodes of Second Decade in 2019 as I did the previous year, I’m proud of the ones I did. Second Decade is a history podcast about the 1810s, and I try to tell broad histories as well as presenting some of the quirkier stories from that momentous time. This one, which dropped on New Year’s Day, is one of my all-time favorites. In August 1817, the residents of Gloucester, Massachusetts suddenly began seeing a strange creature out there in the harbor. The sightings created a sensation as well as a scientific and historical mystery: what were they really seeing? This was a lot of fun to do, and people seemed to like it. Andy Dowling, on whose “Andy Social” podcast I was a guest back in March, singled it out as a fun episode.
Jake’s 88 [Novel]
Although it was complete and in the can at the end of 2018 (and I claimed it as one of my best works in last year’s wrap-up), technically Jake’s 88 came out in January, so it qualifies again! This is a coming-of-age novel focused on a young man, the 16-year-old titular character growing up in a Midwestern town, and a year in his life which happens to be 1988. During the twelve months of that year Jake experiences a tumultuous love triangle, the imprisonment of his criminal father, the break-up of his parents’ marriage, and the uneasy discovery of his own bisexuality. I think Jake’s 88 is one of the strongest pieces of fiction I’ve written. As with most of my books, it’s pretty quiet in terms of reach, but those who have read it really enjoyed it.
Historical Thoughts: The George Adamski UFO “Contactee” Hoax [Video]
I paid less attention to my YouTube channel in 2019 than in the previous year, but I did do a few things, and this is one I recall being particularly fun to do. As a historian I feel I have a duty to correct misconceptions about the past and pseudohistory, however popular. In the early 1950s, a former bootlegger and burger stand owner named George Adamski produced a blurry photo of a lamp and claimed it was a flying saucer whose Venusian occupants gave him a message of world peace, which sounded suspiciously like a low-rent retread of a spiritualist philosophy called Theosophy. Indeed the sheer incompetence of Adamski’s fraud is pretty jaw-dropping, considering how many people believed him 60 years ago and still insist today that he was right (you should see some of the comments I didn’t approve!) But busting fake history is one of the things I do, and I think it came off well in this piece from February 2019 (based on a blog article from 2014), regardless of what UFO cranks and angry Theosophists think of it.
History by Hollywood, Episode 52: The Right Stuff. [Podcast Guest Appearance]
One of the things that brought me a great deal of satisfaction in 2019 was my friendship with two podcast hosts on the opposite side of the world, Martin Darlington and Andrew Blisczyk, who run a fantastic show called History by Hollywood which examines the historicity of movies. I was flattered that they also love Second Decade, and even more flattered to be asked on their show as a guest to discuss the 1983 Philip Kaufman film The Right Stuff. This episode, which aired April 6, was loads of fun to do and I think it turned out extremely well. Since many of History by Hollywood’s fans are also Second Decade fans, it was a double treat for them as well. I also appeared again on History by Hollywood later in the year, discussing Reversal of Fortune. Big thanks to the HBH guys for having me!
This blog languished a bit in the middle of the year; I lost most of my subscribers when I changed servers in March. (To be honest, I was dealing with cancer at the time as well–yes, I’m fine now, but it sucked up a lot of time and attention). By July, though, I was aching to get back into it, so I wrote this five-part series, similar to one I had done in 2016 and 2017, trying to throw a rope around cinema of the 1990s by choosing 25 films most representative of it. In this five-part series I profiled everything from Silence of the Lambs to Con Air and Eyes Wide Shut, and honestly I think I came up with some interesting things to say. The 1990s was a curious decade in cinema history, as it was in world history in general. I hope my series provoked some thoughts on it.
The Warmest Tide: How Climate Change is Changing History. [Non-fiction book]
If I had to choose the one thing I did in 2019 I was most proud of, it would be this: my first nonfiction book, which came out in August. I now work as a consultant and speaker, primarily engaged in helping the world and especially the business community prepare for the massive changes coming as a result of climate change. In this book, which I intended to be quick, light and readable for a lay audience, I set out to put climate change in historical context and to use clues from the past to help us see where our future might be going. Climate change was the biggest story of 2019 across the board, no question about it. I’m very proud to have contributed to an understanding of it, however small my contribution.
Movies were big on this blog in 2019, and to get back into the realm of film bloggers I hosted, in September, the “Some Kind of a Man” Blogathon featuring the work of Orson Welles. I chose to review and analyze Welles’s last film, the bizarre metafictional story The Other Side of the Wind, which was not completed until 2018, some 33 years after Welles’s death. This article is more than just a review, but rather I sought to pick apart Welles’s (and the film’s) offbeat sense of humor and try to understand how, in a very real sense, the joke is on the viewer of this film. I also had fun watching it again. What a strange ride!
Easily the most well-received and popular episodes of Second Decade this year were the three parts of the series, beginning September 22, about the “Year Without Summer.” In 1816 the world experienced a bizarre temporary period of global cooling, resulting in strange weather anomalies from South Africa to Massachusetts. In this series I tried to take a global approach and to focus on stores from people on the ground (and on the seas) who experienced these anomalies firsthand. This series drew upon the research I did for my 2017 doctoral dissertation, which is closely linked to the Second Decade project as a whole. These episodes are everything I always wanted the podcast to be.
The Historical Background of Brexit. [Webinar]
An ongoing project of 2019 that will continue into 2020 is the increasing sophistication of my webinars, online history classes dealing with various subjects that can inform our understanding of the present. I did this webinar twice, once in April and again October 21, as Britain’s exit from the European Union seemed imminent. The second iteration, which you see above, was the better one. Those who took part really seemed to gain understanding of the long historical arc that has led to Brexit, and what the stakes are. I’m also very proud that I’ve honed my “geohistory” approach down to a science and it never fails to interest people who experience it. This webinar was free, but others I did this year were for paying clients. If you’d like a taste of how I teach history online, this is a great place to start.
The Crash Age: The History of the 1920s. [Webinar]
I finished off the year with another webinar–this one for paid clients–given on December 15, delving into the history of the 1920s. I also gave it in April, but the December version was much improved and had a very positive response. The chaotic decade of the ’20s, in which the world sought to recover from and make sense of the devastation of World War I, has much in common with our own period–which, as of tonight at midnight, will again be the Twenties. I am really proud of what I accomplished in this class. And there will be more classes; I’ve got a webinar on the historical background of Putin coming up on January 19.
We face a very uncertain future going into a new decade. The challenges of climate change, rising totalitarianism, international chaos and spiritual crisis will test us all in the coming months and years. I hope to continue to use what tools and talents I have to make sense of it all, to entertain and to inform. That’s what I tried to do in 2019. Best wishes for the New Year.