[image: a reddish orange eels swimming against a dark blue background]
Today’s eel: Every edition of this newsletter is named after an eel. Today's eel is Simenchelys parasitica, which also goes by a series of fairly rude names including snubnose eel, pug-nosed eel, slime eel, and snub-nose parasitic eel. I picked it because these eels are fairly gross (the way I felt about 2022) and also have a lot of fascinating potential we can scavenge (how I'm hoping to feel about 2022 in the future).
Let's be honest, the pugnose eel isn't all that cool looking. It doesn't have the big jaws of the moray eel, or the mesmerizing body of the snake eel, or even the cuteness of the garden eel. They're pretty small (20 to 35 centimeters long) and fairly common. Mostly they're scavengers, minding their own business and eating the flesh of fellow swimmers who didn't make it.
But not always. Sometimes, for some reason or another, the pugnose eel decides that it wants something fresh. Sometimes it uses its small, circular jaw to bite and burrow into the body of a living fish. Sometimes it turns into a parasite.
[image: a whitish pink eel laying flat on a grey background]
There are a handful of studies documenting this surprising change of feeding tactics. They've been found in the heart of a mako shark (badass) feeding inside the flesh of a common pandora, and in the stomach of thirteen different kinds of reef fish. In some cases they burrow into the flesh. In other cases they seem to get themselves swallowed and then feast upon the stomach once they're down.
That's one version of the story, at least. Other scientists aren't so sure. One study argues that perhaps this is all simply a coincidence and that since a lot of these fish feed on eels, it's merely chance that you might find some eels still living inside their stomachs.
Is the pugnose eel more than it seems? More than simply a scavenger? Actually secretly lurking, one step away from burrowing into the heart of an unsuspecting shark? I have no idea, obviously. But I have spent a lot of this year thinking about my own feeding behaviors — about the ways in which unsuspecting things can eat your heart.
[image: four stacks of note cards, each bound by a little clip, stacked on top of one another — the bottom four sets are about the same size, and they're each labeled with a year (2019, 2020, and 2021). The top stack is much thinner and labeled 2022.]
I’m not going to sugar coat it: 2022 was very tough for me. I spent most of 2021 fully scheduled. By which I mean that every minute of my day was accounted for — meetings, travel, more meetings, deadlines, calls, more meetings. I worked essentially four full time jobs that year (Flash Forward, making a narrative documentary show for Audible, making a television show for Netflix, reporting and pitching another documentary project, having a WIRED column) and on top of that became the primary caretaker for a family member going through chemo. In January of 2022, almost all of those jobs came to an end in some way or another. I thought this would be a relief, that I’d be able to finally relax and regain control and work on the various personal projects I had shelved for the year.
Reader, that is not what happened. Instead, my brain and body pulled the emergency break and I collapsed. I spent most of the first six months of 2022 on my couch, unable to get up to do anything at all — including fun things. This comic by Allie Brosh hits the nail on the head.
I’m okay. I got a therapist. I stopped trying to force myself to work. I tried “feeling my feelings” which I still fucking hate but recognize is “important” or whatever. I’ve done a lot of work this year to try and forgive myself for all the work I didn’t do this year.
Usually I close out every year with a big post about all the cool things I wrote and made and did. But this year I’m going to focus less on my professional accomplishments, and more on some personal ones.
That said, I did still have some professional wins this year. So let’s do those first:
I wrote several pieces for my WIRED column, including one about whether it makes sense to write “climate change” in a patient’s medical chart, and one about the future of genetic privacy for athletes.
I wrote for Defector for the first time, and it was a really fun piece about two obscure sports and how they might save each other.
I made an episode of 99 Percent Invisible about whether in the future you could be sued by a river. (We also released our own Flash Forward version of the episode)
The Netflix television show I worked on came out, and featured my face. (Related note: Whoever created my IMDB page clearly hates me. Whatever I did to you, I’m sorry.)
[image: a collage of illustrations. In the center is a wooden sign that says Welcome to Vanguard Estates, flanked by little robots, one of which shows an eye and the other of which shows a rainbow. Around that center image are 26 other illustrations showing things like robot cats, a car wash, a robot butler, a person sitting in a bathtub, car keys, a broken piggy bank and more]
At Flash Forward, we created two really special series.
🤖 Welcome to Vanguard Estates was an ambitious, choose your own path audio series with twenty seven episodes and fourteen different endings.
🐛 Onward and Upward was our show finale, and it's part manifesto about the future, part love letter to listeners, part summation of what I've learned from making Flash Forward for eight years. There are poems (one of which is secretly written by me), a conversation between me and my AI self, an original song by Lazerbeak, people on the street talking about aliens, and more! I really hope you like it!
Making Flash Forward shaped who I am as an audio person, reporter, freelancer, thinker. I learned to trust my gut, to not give up when famous and successful people told me I should, to run a business, to make weird audio stuff. And now it's taught me when to end something. Letting it go was hard, but necessary. I’m proud with what I created (with the help of Ozzy Llinas Goodman our producer!) and I’m happy to set it down gently and move on.
[image: at the top, an open door showing a greenish glow. Below that, a person standing at the edge of a cliff, looking down on a glowing green chrysalis with a skeleton inside of it]
I’m proud of the work I did this year, but I’m also proud of the not work I did. For my whole career (possibly my whole life?) I’ve told this story about myself: I’m never going to be the smartest person in the room. I’m never going to be the most talented, or the most creative, of the most insightful. But what I can be is the hardest working. That has been my personal brand, my whole professional vibe. (I even talk about it on this Longform interview!) So when I couldn’t work — and I really mean physically could not, trust me, I tried — I panicked. What am I if not a person who works four jobs at once? Who am I if not the hardest working person you know? What then?????
Here are a few answers to that question that I learned about this year. I might not have been the hardest working person, but I was:
A person who could deadlift over 200 lbs
A person who could take a moss identification class, and then take their friends on moss walks
A person who could learn how to identify nudibranchs and anemones
A person who could go bug and bird and dolphin watching in Colombia
A person who could walk up many very tall mountains
A person who could talk about their feelings with a therapist
A person who could sit through being stabbed with a needle a bunch to get new fun tattoos
A person who remembers how to throw pots on the wheel
A person who can propagate plants and build a little indoor jungle
[image: two people sitting at the end of a wooden canoe, going down a river in the Amazon jungle]
[image: a set of images showing me lifting 200lbs, squatting 185, holding pieces of pottery, showing off tattoos, and holding a plant. A few images are of nature: a magnified photo of moss, a rock at the top of a mountain, and a nudibranch]
I don’t mean to sugar coat the six months I spent unable to function. That was bad. But I am proud of myself for seeking help, and trying to re-calibrate my relationship with work. And I’m hoping I can bring that re-calibration into 2023, when I can in fact tackle the projects I had hoped to do in 2022. So, let’s go to the future shall we?
In the nearly eight years I spent making Flash Forward, there was never really time to figure out my big next steps. It was always about the next season of the show, the next partnerships, the next business move. But now, I have an opening to really reflect on what I want to be doing. Do I want to make more podcasts? Do I want to write books? Do I want to become a falcon trainer and move to a yurt? Should I go get a PhD? Should I move to Bonaire and teach rich people how to SCUBA? These questions have always lurked around the back of my brain, but now I’m actually able to try and answer them.
Every year I do a series of planning exercises to try and prepare myself for what I want to happen next. For the last few years these have been big, ambitious business planning documents where I lay out metrics and numbers and goals for listeners and dollars accrued. This year, I tried to focus those planning documents more on creative goals, and less on financial or audience goals. I also always give my years themes, which is very cheesy but I am a very cheesy person!
This year I also added a tool to that set of exercises, something called the Year Compass (shared with me by Tim Maly) which was useful. In doing these documents, I landed on three big anchors for my year:
Surprise. I want to make things that make me feel like I’m adding something to the conversation. Things that feel unique and original and like they’re doing something that other people aren’t doing, either with the ideas or the format. I want to have fun, and feel joy when I’m making things. I want to create things that help people see the world in new ways, that help them feel more grounded and prepared for what might come next. If not that, I want to delight and surprise — to make things that make people say “oh! I wasn’t expecting that!”
Sustainability. I can now admit that the Great Collapse of 2022 was probably foreseeable. I had taken on too much. I knew I had taken on too much. Even while I was saying yes to things I knew that some of them were bad choices. I said yes anyway, for all kinds of reasons, some of them understandable. They were opportunities that would be good for my career, it was working with people I admired, it was the kind of project I wanted to be doing. In hindsight, it’s easy to see how I burned out so badly. But I’d like to try and bring some of that awareness to foresight.
Grounding. One of the thing that the Year Compass does is ask you to look back on the moments you were happiest in the past year, and think about what ties them together. And in doing that I realized that almost all my best 2022 memories are outside. Being in Colombia, on a kayak, looking at dolphins. Being in Yellowstone, looking at geysers. Panting at the top of Brokeoff mountain in Lassen Volcanic National Park. Peering over tide pools. Crouching over moss. The more work I can do outside, out in the world, the better.
With those three elements in mind, I have deemed 2023 the year of the MAGICAL FARM OF WONDERS. A sustainable farm full of odd, surprising little beasts. I am ready to till the soil, water the crops, sheer the flying sheep, and nap in the grass when it’s nice and sunny.
[image: two photographs of two different desks in the same room, which is also full of plants and art]
And now for the real stuff! The actual work I have planned.
The writer Warren Ellis does a thing in his newsletters that I am going to now unabashedly steal: code-naming his various projects so he can share little ideas and thoughts about them without giving too much away. (Obviously Ellis didn’t come up with the concept of code names, and/but his practice of using them in a newsletter has apparently caught on, according to a recent newsletter in which he wrote: “I have a habit, apparently now taken up by many people, where I attach a codename to a project I can't yet announce so I can talk about it a little bit.“)
So here are a few projects that I might reference in the coming newsletters, and a tiny bit about them. I’m going to name them after mushrooms, because why not.
CUBENSIS — A novel set in the early 1900’s about science, obsession and power.
CHLOROPHOS — A science fiction novel about the epigenetics of trauma.
PECKII — I’d really like to write some short stories this year, and I have a few in the works:
PECKII I: A story about death and technology
PECKII II: A story about children and climate change
PECKII III: A story about change and activism
OSTOYAE — A non-fiction book about the future.
COMMUNE — A podcast documentary about gender and sports.
AMERICANUM — A podcast episode about the past, present and future of an odd sport.
EDULIS — An experimental documentary film about truth, gender and sports.
CORTICOLA — My WIRED column about “ideas” which is always a bit of a head-scratcher since, isn’t everything an idea, really?
CORTICOLA I: A piece on the nature of prediction and hindsight
Some of these projects are already sold. Others are simply waiting for someone (please!) to buy them. Some are in the very earliest stages of ideation. And many of them are in the messy middle, where I'm wrestling with research and writing and trying to figure out what they should be and whether they could ever, possibly sell.
Flash Forward was my primary source of income, by the way. If you want to support this work you can do so by becoming a member of the Time Traveler Club. You’ll get regular updates on all these projects, along with bonus podcasts and process logs on some art projects I’m working on. Plus other random stuff that I’ll come up with in the future.
Along with those official projects, I’m also working on some personal ones. I’m taking a few classes at the community college this spring, including raptor identification, sculpture, and Spanish. I’ve got some art projects in the works, and a quest to reunite some long-lost moss. I’ve got tattoos planned, and this year I’m going to squat 200 pounds, get back to climbing V5’s, and hopefully get a pull up! One! Pull up!
If you’re reading this and thinking “wow this is a lot of things after a long explanation of burnout” you’re not wrong. But I know myself, and I think that if I arrange things right, delegate, and trust my gut on projects, I can keep to my goal of sustainability this year.
Wish me luck!
This baby eel video shot by Fan Zhang. Probably a conger conger, which we covered here.
André Carlisle (who co-hosts a very good soccer podcast you should listen to if you like soccer!) discovering the wonders of the wolf eel.
✨ Onward and upward my friends ✨