Saturday, January 2, 2021

2020 was the best year of my life

From chaos, order. From noise, silence. From downtime, the opportunity to learn, learn, and learn. Here's how I made 2020 work for me.

Aaron S. Robertson 

Around a couple of weeks ago, I was having a phone conversation with my financial advisor. Actually, we were meeting on Zoom, one of the new things I learned how to do in 2020 (I'll get to that a little later). During our conversation, we landed on the subject of 2020 for a little bit. I told her that I felt kind of strange for saying and feeling this, but 2020 was actually perhaps the best year I've ever had, for a variety of reasons. She told me that I actually wasn't alone in feeling this way. She's been hearing the same talk from others.

Yes, it's true. And sure, I've occasionally joined family, friends, co-workers, and the social media and meme universes in generically bashing 2020. After all, there can be no ambiguity about it - it was, generally speaking, one hell of an unusual and chaotic ride, and that's quite an understatement. But with chaos comes opportunity, and the more I reflected on the year as we arrived closer to its end, the more I really am convinced that 2020 was indeed perhaps the best year of my life. With all the mayhem the year introduced, I sought to forcefully and skillfully match it with just as much order and clarity.

Jake LaMotta
"You never knocked me down, 2020. You never got me down." --
World middleweight champion Jake LaMotta (1922-2017), the "Raging Bull,"
in reference to Sugar Ray Robinson never being able to knock him out.
Chaotic and uncertain times, and life in general, are what you make of it. Never forget that. It's all what you make of it. You can't always control every outcome and event, but you are always able to be in full command of your response. And I actively chose to take advantage of all the havoc and the down time it brought with it this year to learn new subjects, sharpen skills, gain new insights, take my strategic thinking abilities to the next level, become familiar with newer technologies, and make new connections.

Here are the main highlights of my 2020 -

At the end of February/beginning of March, I started the envelope budgeting system as one of several key strategies I would go on to implement throughout the course of the year to gain better control over my finances. While I was somewhat familiar with the concepts behind this old-school system for many years, it wasn't until I started assisting students in a high school personal finance class last semester that I finally committed to trying this out. And it has helped me immensely. Check out this post I wrote back on March 4 about the envelope budgeting system. This goes to show you that you're never too old to learn anything. I was learning this system right alongside high school students. And it's working for me. 

When schools closed and went online back in March for the remainder of the 2019-2020 school year, those of us who were working as hourly aides suddenly found ourselves wondering about our job security. Will our hours be cut? Will we be laid off and forced to hit the unemployment line? These were real and sincere questions we were facing. But to our pleasant surprise, the school district I have the privilege and honor of serving committed to keeping all of us working our regular schedules. The deal was that, when we weren't meeting with students online, we were expected to work on professional development activities and document our progress to HR. For me, this took on the form of reading a number of books and articles, writing reflections and essays (some of which became blog posts that I will share at the end of this post), watching a variety of training videos, and fulfilling continuing education requirements for my substitute teaching license. I'm very grateful to my school district for keeping us working. I'll never forget it. Not only was I blessed to be able to continue earning my regular income, but I was also given this incredible opportunity in all this chaos to deepen my understanding of various issues, challenges, trends, and debates in K-12 education today, along with learning new strategies to aid me in being more effective in the classroom. It was certainly time well spent. I learned things that I might never have been able to learn otherwise with my "normal" work schedule, simply due to a lack of time and opportunity in the typical day. Aides I know in other school districts weren't as fortunate. They either had their hours cut or were laid off outright.

At the end of April, while reminiscing on my childhood, I published this piece on figure skater Oksana Baiul. I caught her attention on Twitter for it, which was a fun surprise, and we ended up tweeting back and forth a little bit that day. Some day, I would love to interview her (you can check out my noteworthy interviews here). I'm sure she has a lot of valuable advice and insights to share with youngsters, particularly girls and young women, about chasing their dreams.

Oksana Baiul on Twitter

In mid-June, I had a phone conversation with one of my former professors. A political science professor from my days as an undergraduate student at Cardinal Stritch University, he has taught now for many years at the U.S. Naval War College in Rhode Island. I sought out his counsel on the subject of my doctoral dissertation. Originally, I wanted to do my dissertation on something in the realm of organizational culture, but I decided to take a new direction, and I was looking to return to my roots in political science. He planted a seed in my mind: China. With U.S. - China relations growing increasingly intense and China's power on the rise, many scholars predict we have entered, or will soon be entering, a new cold war. Some are speculating that we could eventually see actual combat. The seed he planted in my mind during this discussion would soon sprout into some viable ideas for my dissertation studies.

Summer: I traded in my usual summer itinerary of Milwaukee Brewers games, car shows, outdoor live music, the church festival scene, backyard barbecues, and the Wisconsin State Fair for the opportunity to learn all I could about China - its Communist Party leadership, Confucian philosophy, economy, artificial intelligence (AI) goals, Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), general history, how it's managing the COVID pandemic, its relations with other countries, etc. I did a lot of reading, watching documentaries, and so on. Simultaneously, I did a lot of research in the field of International Relations, becoming familiar with its key theories, concepts, and debates. I joke that I discovered just how much of a bitter realist I am. Among many other works, I finally got around to reading in its entirety The Prince by Machiavelli, and I even fit in The Art of War by Sun Tzu and the History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides.

August: I discovered the Web site Udemy, in short, is an online learning platform allowing you to take video courses on a wide variety of subjects taught by experts from all over the world. You can read my full review of Udemy for more detailed information. I highly recommend looking into it. Anyway, among other courses I took, there were several in the field of International Relations taught by Dr. Kamil Zwolski. Kamil teaches at the University of Southampton, in the United Kingdom. His courses are informative and engaging, and they really complemented and enhanced what I was already learning up to that point. Kamil and I have started a correspondence, and we connected on LinkedIn and Twitter. Starting this month, in January, I'm taking a six-week seminar-style course he's teaching on International Relations theory. To show you how committed I am to the subject, I have to be up by 4am for six straight Saturdays so that I can catch him lecturing live at 11am his time in the UK! He recently launched his own Web site and blog devoted to the subject of International Relations, which you can check out by clicking here.

Learning new technologies: Working in education, I had to quickly become familiar with tools like Google Meet and Zoom on the fly. I also had to learn some other meeting apps and online communications tools for things like doctor appointments and professional development webinars. These are all tools and resources I never really had to use or think about before the pandemic hit. Now I know how to use them. Another learning opportunity in the chaos.

An education in viruses and the immune system: I probably learned more than I ever need or want to know about viruses, but, nonetheless, I'm now more educated on the subject. Actually, I found most of it to be quite fascinating, for someone who's usually not very much interested in the natural sciences. I also learned a few new things about the immune system, including the vital roles that Vitamin D and zinc play in it. Now, it always seems like the go-to vitamin for boosting one's immune system is Vitamin C. That's the one vitamin we frequently hear and talk about. No doubt, C is a key building block for the immune system. But, perhaps due to marketing gimmicks and packaging, C has managed to take too much of the spotlight, drowning out other vitamins and nutrients that are also important for immune system health, particularly Vitamin D. No wonder we're all deficient in it.

Dr. House: Near the end of the year, I rediscovered the TV series House on Amazon Prime. Prime has all eight seasons. Man, I love that show. I share House's dark humor, sarcasm, deep thinking, and eccentricities. Or does he share mine?

Bobby Fischer, chess, and checkers: At the very end of the year, literally within the last couple of weeks or so, I finally saw the 2014 movie Pawn Sacrifice, starring Tobey Maguire as the eccentric, reclusive, and demanding Bobby Fischer, who defeated Boris Spassky of the Soviet Union in 1972 to be crowned world champion of chess. Here's an interesting article from, written in 2011, about Bobby Fischer. I was never interested in chess, and Bobby Fischer's name barely registered in my mind prior to seeing the movie. I now want to learn the game. It's on my radar to study one of these days soon. In the meantime, I rekindled an interest in checkers.
Here's a full-length HBO documentary on Bobby Fischer from 2011. It's entitled Bobby Fischer Against the World.

In closing, here are those blog posts I mentioned earlier that I wrote as part of my professional development regimen at the end of last school year. Happy reading, and Happy New Year! Here's to you and your loved ones for a safe, blessed, and prosperous 2021!



Emotional Disturbance

Fun activity with your favorite song

Fun activity with a favorite video game 

The real purpose of K-12 education

Building your own personal economy

The success and beauty in failure

Building intergenerational connections

Reading comprehension skills

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