31 December 2020

2020. What a year! So much has happened, and yet it feels like nothing has happened. Did time and space collide, hijack the rollercoaster we were all on, and kept us going through the loops? It's the last day of the year but it doesn't feel like we're getting off the ride just yet. 

But in any case, here is a bunch of things that made me feel less terrible and/or amplified the terrible feelings (in a good, cathartic way) this year.

BoJack Horseman (Netflix)

Did this series really end this year? Did we really see the last of BoJack, Diane, Princess Caroline, Todd, and Mr. Peanutbutter? It had its curtain call last January, and it already feels like forever ago. When I first started watching this show, there were only three seasons so far on Netflix. In between waiting for the new seasons, I'd always feel hopeful: maybe this is the season for redemption, for comeuppance but also recovery. And every finale, I'd be punched in the gut at how much sadder and bleaker things seemed for this crazy group of people you couldn't help but root for. Unarguably, the series finale was the most heartbreaking of them all. Why? Because endings are always hard. But also, because the endings that hurt more are the ones we actually saw coming. When we know things cannot turn out any other way. When the inevitability of anguish can be seen from a mile away, and yet we go through with it because that's life. That's just how it is. Sometimes, life's a bitch and you die, right? But sometimes, life's a bitch and you keep on living. And it was nice while it lasted.

Lana Del Rey

No one else makes music that perfectly encapsulates the psychological phenomena of "the call of the void" better than Lana. Going through her entire discography this year felt like wearing different masks. Each time, it's a mask painted in a shade of gloom and foreboding, but it's actually very freeing, almost like escaping to a world where sadness is the catalyst that turns your charcoal feelings into diamonds. Living in the moment is accepting all the highs and lows of life and making beautiful music because of, in spite of, in pursuit of it. She said it best in Norman F*cking Rockwell: happiness is a butterfly, every day is a lullaby, I try to catch it into lightning, I sing it into my music. I just want to dance. 

"Disco sadness"

Speaking of dancing, 2020 was a year of fully surrendering to pop music. I realized that the most powerful songs to cry to are those that force you to move. Why? Because with them, there is no choice other than to dance the pain away. To acquiesce to the pulsating beats, to be consumed by the music - it's both concession and catharsis. (I made a playlist of sad bangers that clocks in at exactly sixty minutes, and which of course include Carly Rae, Jessie Ware, Robyn, and Mark Ronson among others.)

Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino by Arctic Monkeys
...Like Clockwork by Queens of the Stone Age

I dove into these two concept albums this year because I felt like the conceit created for each of them was so interesting. Gentrification and media consumption even in outer space, a lunar wedding, a space motel. A vampire that feels frozen in time. The metaphors perfectly bridge the divide between these bands' hard and soft extremes. It all feels so alien, and yet very much familiar. And oddly comforting. (Plus, Dave Grohl returned as the drummer for this QOTSA album!)

Succession (HBO)

Don't be fooled: this is currently HBO's biggest prestige drama. A media mogul is forced to step down from his media conglomerate, but for him, none of his children are ready to inherit his legacy. High stakes, betrayal, money, family, power But damn it, everything about this show is just so, sooo funny. Which isn't a surprise, given that it is produced by Will Ferrell and Adam McKay. It's this fantastic portrait of a powerful family, full of terrible people, making terrible choices. The sad thing is it reflects the reality that our fates - the information we consume, most importantly - rely on the whims of these few entitled brats. They're all trainwrecks in their own way, but it's so hard to look away. 

Jeopardy (Netflix)

There really is no better comfort show than Jeopardy. Okay, coming clean: in grade school and high school, I was always our school's representative for quiz bees, mostly in history and social sciences. (Yeah, I intellectually peaked in high school, haha.) This show just gets me fired up, because it makes wanting to learn fun. One of the phrases (and mindsets) I absolutely hate is "Edi ikaw na madaming alam." It's such a stupid retort that shuts down any discourse. So what if I know things??? Learning is fun!!! Knowing the classics and state capitals is fun!!! Hypothetically winning $20,000 by getting the Final Jeopardy question is fun!!! Alex Trebek will definitely be missed though. Losing him was such a gut-punch in an already horrible year.

A Very Punchable Face by Colin Jost

Before this book, I didn't really have an opinion on Colin Jost. I don't consider him an SNL great, although I do know he's been writing for it since he graduated from Harvard in 2005. I think he's an okay Weekend Update anchor, I know he's dating ScarJo, aaaand that's pretty much it. But I'm so glad I picked up this book, partly because since he was writing about the era of SNL I mostly grew up with (2005-present), I knew much of what he was talking about. Mostly because it was very self-aware of what people perceive as his own mediocrity. He recognizes his privilege. He acknowledges his weaknesses. But he hustles his way through. He consistently out-works anyone else to show that he may not be the best, but he's really good at what he does anyway. (The chapter about his mom being the chief medical officer of the New York Fire Department during 9/11 also made me cry buckets. She saved so many lives but also lost so many others. It was a great illustration of her tenacity and compassion, which was great of Jost to highlight in his book.)

Saturday Night Live

Aside from Jost's memoir, I read another book about SNL this year, "Saturday Night Live and American TV." I also started rewatching old episodes on Peacock (on VPN). And I binge-watched "Creating Saturday Night Live" behind-the-scenes videos on YouTube. Like I've said before, I've always secretly dreamt of becoming a screenwriter for a comedy show. When people ask me about my "what if" - this is one of mine. And SNL will always be that unexplored, unattainable playground. 

In the Land of Men by Adrienne Miller

Another "what if." This book is unarguably one of my favorite memoirs from this year. Adrienne Miller lived out what every creative writing and literature major could only dream of: become the literary editor of Esquire. This meant she got to meet, mingle with, and critique some of the best writers of her generation. But this also meant learning how to navigate the very elitist, often classist, and sometimes misogynistic world of the modern-day literati. Her tenuous relationship with David Foster Wallace was the highlight of the book, and while I'm an ardent admirer of the man (I still mourn his passing), I felt that it was only fitting that she wrote about the difficult aspects of being his friend/former flame. Some parts of her story felt emotionally crushing, but it was a necessary story to tell, and I'm glad she shared it with the world. 

Big Mouth (Netflix)

I wish I had this show in my adolescence. It would have made me feel less bad about feeling certain things - emotionally and sexually. The premise of this show may seem dumb and wacky (okay, it is), but it's so refreshingly honest and simple. Puberty brings about so many changes. And it's okay to feel worried, anxious, or angry about it. The important thing is to accept that it's all normal. Our body shouldn't define us, but understanding it certainly leads to clarity about who we are. (Connie the Hormone Monster is my absolute favorite! I actually cried when Jessi had her first period because everything Connie said about it was true: it makes you want to listen to Lana del Rey while cutting your hair and screaming at your mom.)

Positions by Ariana Grande

She's my most played artist this 2020. I'm in the 0.1% of her listeners. Need I say more? Much of Ariana's music and disposition mirrors my own struggles. There is something so compelling about a figure who has gone through so many traumatic experiences in such a short time and managed to emerge stronger, kinder, and more self-deprecating even in her vulnerability. It was certainly not easy surviving a terrorist attack, losing your fans, losing your ex, breaking off an engagement. But she manages to distill her feelings of fear, longing, and acceptance into such great pop songs. They're so fun to sing to, to cry to. To find comfort in. To borrow from Pitchfork: "Sweetener dazzled because its joy was defiant. thank u, next caromed through phases of glee and grief, moving from pink champagne bravado into stark confessions. Positions searches for peace. It traces the quiet work of piecing yourself together, the terror of re-learning how to trust." This is Ariana's power for me: the ability to take tangible pain and make something from it, to feel whole again. 

Teaching (and putting studying on hold)

I started teaching at a public, city-funded university's law school this year. It was certainly one of the nice detours this year brought. I applied last year given the university's proximity to my office, but at the time there were no openings available. Enter 2020, and an opportunity opened up for Legal Philosophy. Trying to teach my students about justice, fairness, and due process was especially very difficult this year. Considering this government's incompetence and moral bankruptcy, it was challenging to reconcile theory with reality. But it's also comforting to know that this crop of students are compassionate and intelligent, able to see where our institutions fail and how they should navigate their future place in the profession. In many ways, this teaching gig was a welcome detour. If the pandemic didn't happen, I'd probably be abroad, finishing my LLM under a scholarship. I got admitted to three schools this year, but I had to put that dream on hold, but to be honest, I also feel relieved. The country is in such a mess. It's exhausting and it feels unending. But being forced to stay here made me put things into perspective. What is it that I want to do for this place? Is it a dream worth pursuing? And the answer, every day, despite the gaslighting and the emotional abuse our leaders are putting us through, is yes. Our institutions deserve better. We can do better. And we can do our part when we find it in ourselves to point our goals towards that direction: progress. 


The truth was I almost didn't want to write anything about 2020 anymore. I've already done that several times this year. But maybe that's a good thing. While this year may have been hard to process, I grabbed every opportunity to reflect and to write as soon as I felt it necessary. (Not always in this blog, but in my private notebooks, at least.) If anything, 2020 forced me to face my fears head on. I had no other choice. I was stuck in one place, so I had to deal with things right away. And deal with it, I did, with this list of things  being just as crucial in taking the edge off as the love of friends and family with whom I've grown closer in many ways this year.

I wish 2021 will be kinder. But even if it isn't, at the very least, after this shitshow of a year, I hope we all are. 2020 was tiresome. I hope we never forget the lessons it taught us: kindness, patience, compassion. 

And the fervent hope that things will, should, and can get better. Because what else is there to help carry us through? 

"The culture is lit and if this is it, I had a ball
I guess that I'm burned out after all."

The greatest, Lana Del Rey

13 December 2020

Conan O'Brien Needs A Friend, Episode 13: Stephen Colbert
Conan O'Brien Needs A Friend, Episode 13: Stephen Colbert

I've been meaning to write about this episode since the first time I heard it in 2019. And I've attempted to do so in the many times I've gone back to it since then. It's a fantastic episode, not just of "Conan O'Brien Needs A Friend," but podcasting in general. Conversations like these are what make this format so fulfilling. Podcasts allow the host and the guest to truly immerse themselves in a topic without the expectation of immediate audience reactions or without much worry over time. But also, the entire hour of this show was a great distillation of what I love most about comedy. A lot of people dismiss the genre as "light." Frivolous. Not serious. But there is a great deal of depth and poignancy behind why it feels light. And it often takes a tremendous amount of sheer will - one that has overtaken or continues to overtake suffering - to create something that triggers release: laughter. With genuine laughter comes levity, and with levity comes ease. This episode demonstrates clearly why and how comedy heals.

(It's also a great introspection on Catholicism, and how our faith compels us to view suffering as imperative to redemption. Who would've thought, huh? On a comedy podcast!)

Let's start in media res: Conan opened up about growing up and suffering from anxiety. Shortly after, Stephen began talking about the tragedy of losing his dad and his two brothers on a plane crash when he was 10 years old. They were en route to the Canterbury School, a boarding school in Connecticut, when the plane was trying to land. It changed his family's life instantly, and shattered him completely. 

Eventually, the two comedians found common ground on how comedy really, truly saved their lives. Comedy, for them, came from this sudden, unexplainable compulsion to enter a plane of "magical thinking." It was relying so much on your imagination, of being so deep in a process of self-reflection, in order to channel something new. For Stephen, it was entering this realm of possibilities inside of head, of trying to change how things were and finding meaning to reality.

Stephen: "I had a magical thinking about suffering and about forbearance and patience. Patience and forbearance of suffering. It would require enormous magic for that not to have happened [to my dad and brothers]. But what kind of brother or son would I be if I didn't at least attempt the magic?" 

With that "magical thinking" also came the acceptance of suffering; in fact, even thinking that pain was necessary in order to achieve some kind of meaning. The logic is that somehow, getting to the realm of "magical thinking" offsets the guilt of being alive or the guilt of having good fortune.

Conan: "I grew up an anxious person, very anxious person, and struggled with anxiety, and I really thought in a Catholic way that everything anything good had to come through suffering. I really believe that you have to be miserable."

Both these guys were raised in a very intellectual Catholic household. Both their dads were medical doctors (Stephen's dad was the dean of Yale Medical School; Conan's dad was a professor at Harvard Medical School). Conan's mom was a lawyer from Yale. They came from a large family (Stephen had 10 older siblings; Conan was the 4th of 6 children). But more than that, they were kindred spirits in how they both constructed a belief system that misery was required for anything good to happen. 

There was a beautiful discussion of how this was necessarily tied to their faith. 

Stephen: "I'm a Roman Catholic, and an 11-year-old altar boy. Very devout household. And the image of Christ on the cross - the highest aspiration is to be able to take up your cross and to alchemize suffering into gold. But you can't have gold without suffering. To the point where I had a magical thinking."

I have gone almost three decades of my life without anyone else understanding this undercurrent of unexplainable sadness I carry with me, a sadness so baffling considering I am often the most cheerful and most optimistic in almost all of my circles. It wasn't until this podcast that I realized I wasn't alone. I have lived a very privileged life. In many ways, I have been shielded from harsh difficulties because of circumstances outside my control. (Class, mostly.) It has always made me feel a kind of much-deserved guilt, that I don't deserve to have these things. And yet, I do have a unique collection of heartaches. The death of numerous family members since I was 13; parents who only tolerate each other; an operation that permanently severed certain body parts - these all change the equation. To reconcile my privilege and my many griefs, my mind learned to cope by creating this twisted way of looking at the world. Anguish was necessary to counterpoise my good fortune, I'd think to myself. But the continuous luck - the "rewards" I got after going through those sufferings - would just add more to my shame and sadness. "At what cost? My loved ones' lives? I don't deserve any good fortune that came out of overcoming that grief." And so begins an endless cycle of gloom and guilt.

At which point, the "magical thinking" comes in. The magical thinking that maybe I could turn back time. Or that maybe, I can create my own reality. The former is impossible; I just settle with leaving the what ifs in my imagination. As for the latter, it's the part where I intentionally disassociate from this self-defeating cycle, and just decide to power through. That conscious conquering - I get that by making jokes, trying to make people laugh. By putting a bubbly, fun, overly optimistic facade. The "magic" happens when I actually start to believe it. When it doesn't feel fake. When it starts to touch that part of me that floats through the undertow of sadness. And for a moment, the gears of the endless cycle screech to a halt. "I am capable of making people happy without putting them through misery. I can do that for others. Maybe I can do that to myself, too." And if I want it bad enough, if I think hard enough, that magic will erase my woes and work on me too. 

Conan: "I felt like I suffered through other things, and they felt very powerful to me. And I engaged in magical thinking and put myself through a lot of torture. And here’s the crazy thing what happens when you do that, and then magical things start to happen for you."

It's no coincidence that this intersects with my favorite book by Joan Didion, "The Year of Magical Thinking." It is a masterful account of Joan's denial and acceptance over her husband's death. In exquisite, melancholic, almost poetic detail, she invites us into the head space of an unexpected widow, who was at the same time taking care of a 39-year-old daughter in a coma. Here, she explores her inner voice doing the "magical thinking" -  her way of pervading through her suffering was to freeze her grief, as if preserving it in amber. Charging his phone, putting his shoes by the door. One can say it was denial, but many modern sociologists also argue that it's the self's way of manifesting: of giving power to her thoughts like a child, "as if her thoughts or wishes had the power to reverse the narrative, change the outcome." Studies show that any form of "magical thinking" - a belief system that your thoughts can have an influence in the course of events in real life - as adaptive and healing. It can reinforce a suffering person's sense of stability and control. It's advanced-level denial.  

It's not an easy thing to explain, justify, or even rationalize. But I'm so glad Conan and Stephen were able to allow themselves enough vulnerability in that episode that they were able to bring about this truth. To recognize that this coping mechanism isn't unique to each of them. And that this salves the wounds of others too. This suffering, this guilt, this agony - what was it for? What was I supposed to do with it and what was it supposed to do with me?

We embrace the "magical thinking" because we want to justify that suffering is just the prerequisite for any kind of metaphorical or literal reward. A transactional way of looking at life - a lot of therapists will say it's not healthy. But powering through - it happens. And when it does, it just perpetuates itself. It is able to manifest a new reality. 

"The magical thinking magically thinks that the magical thinking worked."

At many points in my life, I feel like it is my faith that consistently pulls me out from a dark place. But - to an embarrassing degree - I place my reverence of the power of laughter on the same pedestal. I am able to access that magical plane because I try to find the hilarity in the saddest, most absurd, most painful situations in my life. I have suffered so badly that I could only end up laughing about it. I carry so much unexplainable sadness that I have no choice but to make fun of it. That's the real triumph, the redemptive coup de grace against that suffering. Losing a loved one, losing a part of your reproductive organs; been there, done that. And when I am truly able to "make light" of it - when I start to believe it and the magic happens - it keeps me moving.

This post is hardly a good distillation of that podcast, nor is it a clear explanation of what that mindset is and how it works. But I just... got it. I was shocked at how much I did. I was stunned at how much they accurately described this affliction. It was so familiar. And it was so powerful. And every time I feel lost or burdened, I find myself coming back to this episode. There will always be suffering. And maybe at the end of the suffering will always be a reward. Maybe we won't always deserve it. But - and I sure hope so - there will always be room for laughter, and there will always be space for magic. 

Follow Me on Instagram @karlabernardo


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