Around this time, as the old year tilts downward into darkness and chill, the human brain compensates with tinglings of novelty. This isn’t science, you understand: This is just the way it works. The eye of day opens onto winter bleakness; the shape of a leafless tree at evening disturbs us; and so we incline, quite naturally, in the opposite direction—to thoughts of new buds, thrilling debuts, burgeoning trends, and upward curves.
In America these things absorb us perennially, of course, but late December gives our need for new beginnings a special keenness. We arouse ourselves, with perhaps disproportionate zeal, at the news that Katy Perry is launching another fragrance (her third). Or that the pope has opened a Twitter account—he’s started tweeting! Hooray! We might even dream, in feeble audacity, of greeting the new year with a new self: a self that eats fewer doughnuts and reads a better class of book.
But in the gate of the year stands the two-faced god Janus, looking back as well as forward. An ending has more life in it, more story in it, and is far more instructive than a beginning. When people end—that is, die—we know what to do: Obituaries, appreciations, the rituals of retrospection kick in. Patterns are discerned and meanings are ascribed. We are remarkably confident, in fact, in our judgments: It was a good life, it was a sad life, and so on. No such certainty attends the passing of things—of ideas or moods or symbols or places. Their significance is disputed, their message vexed, if we are even sure that they have ended at all. Here the analyst treads carefully—but tread she must, for these are the endings that usher us into the future.
So what were some of the more poignant or tutelary endings of 2012? Lance Armstrong and Philip Roth both quit the field, the former felled beanstalk-like by the tiny ax of Truth, the latter exiting voluntarily, to cheers.
From Armstrong we learned that a dedicated cheat—if his brand is strong—can hoodwink us almost indefinitely. “Give a man a reputation as an early riser,” observed Mark Twain, “and that man can sleep till noon.” Armstrong, between his cancer foundation and the gasping, pop-scientific stories about his oversized heart and ultra-low lactic acid levels, had constructed a market identity that touched on the supernatural. Even after it was revealed that he’d been doping like Jeremy Renner in “The Bourne Legacy,” money continued to pour in to his charity Livestrong—indeed, in the days following his decision to stop fighting the charges leveled at him by the US Anti-Doping Agency, the rate of donation went up 25 times. His fall is a disaster in many ways—a disaster, certainly, for the sport of cycling. But do not suppress that frisson of Lancenfreude: You are simply responding to the fairy tale physics of the ending.
And the lesson handed down to us by the abdication of Philip Roth? That writing will break your heart. A couple of weeks before his announcement in the French magazine Les Inrocks that he had written his last novel, Roth was approached in a New York deli by a young writer called Julian Tepper, who was working there as a waiter. Tepper later wrote up the encounter for The Paris Review: how he presented the saturnine Roth with a copy of his debut novel “Balls,” was congratulated on the title, and was then offered some free advice. “I would quit while you’re ahead,” Roth told him. “Really, it’s an awful field. Just torture. Awful. You write and write, and you have to throw almost all of it away because it’s not any good. I would say just stop now. You don’t want to do this to yourself.” Such an invigoratingly, bone-jarringly depressing verdict on the writer’s life, and so avuncularly given! Roth’s powers must still be strong: With this scene he displays the great author’s gift for turning real life into what seems like fiction. Can’t we imagine Nathan Zuckerman similarly cornered, in the same New York deli, by the eager waiter brandishing “Balls”?
Some things do just stop, of course, and the lesson of their cessation seems to be nothing more than the space they leave behind. The closing of old-school Boston restaurant Locke-Ober produced nostalgia trips and eulogistic puffings, but there are those of us who will mourn more deeply the Otherside Cafe, that jolly little subcultural grotto at the wrong end of Newbury Street, right by a Mass. Pike onramp. The shutters came down on this place in 2012, and what is there to say about it except “Oh dear”? For 20 years the Otherside played lovely loud punk rock on its speakers while beer and vegetarian food were served, with wild-eyed geniality, by a staff hand-picked from an apparently inexhaustible pool of tattered young persons. And now it’s gone, and so is Sleep-A-Rama, the mattress store next door, taking with it a little more of the character of our city.
Gone too is the Boston Book Annex, formerly of lower Beacon Street, swallowed by 2012. From this closing, part of a pattern of vanishing bookstores, we could probably extrapolate an economic lesson—about the changing market for used books, and the Internet, and so on. Or we could simply remember the crypt-like atmosphere of the place, with its two somnolently suspicious cats and endless books by Reynolds Price.
Clint Eastwood talking to a chair at the Republican National Convention...Was that the end of something? The dried husk of a patriarchy, getting blown away in the wind of its own irrelevance? For those few minutes it felt like the end of public speaking. Certainly the election ended the mighty arc of American aspiration that was the political career of Mitt Romney. Around his failure to win there sprang up a sense of anticlimax so acute it was almost a vacuum: He seemed to vanish inside it, smiling to the end, leaving only the glint of his magnificent hair. The idea of Barack Obama as a brilliant debater was also ended by this election cycle. The president, we all suddenly realized, is a terrible debater: laden with ennui, grinding in his cogitations. Television, the medium itself, groaned at the lead balloon of his presidential frown. Mercifully, he won’t have to do it again.
Then there are the endings that we might wish for in 2013. An end to the gun as a totem of liberty, for example. An end to gossip culture, militarized police officers, predatory financial institutions, melting icecaps, and tomatoes that don’t taste like tomatoes. An end to the weight of human drabness onto which the doors of the T open every morning at 7:30. We look for these endings, in some cases we work for them, with a hope that is—luckily for us—endless.
— James Parker, contributing editor at The Atlantic
It became the most important bowling party on Earth. Justin Bieber and his boys hit the lanes. He promptly invaded a girl bowler’s space and was all like, “Are we an item? / Girl, quit playin’ / We’re just friends / What are you sayin’?” The love signal was mixed, the ensuing dance-fight fun, and the obsession clear. As of this typing, the video for “Baby” has been viewed on YouTube more than 815,230,840 times. For two years, it was the most watched video on YouTube, ever—with 1.4 million likes and an even more impressive 3.2 million dislikes to its name.
That age of innocence is over. In November, “Baby” was dethroned by the video for “Gangnam Style,” a candied wedge of high-spirited randomness by South Korea’s PSY. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the coup took only three months. The video has handily surpassed a billion views (with a paltry 482,000 dislikes). What happened? On the surface, this was the moment in which the rest of the planet suddenly figured out what Asia and its diaspora already knew: How awesome is K-pop? Way! But with a part-English, mostly Korean song that cranked goofy social satire up to party-rock-nonsense volume, PSY distinguished himself from wholesale K-pop and hogged the planet’s attention with an anthem for a world that didn’t know it needed one.
Truly, though, the lasting appeal of “Gangnam Style” is its choreography. An exquisitely well-tailored, well-heeled chubster danced harder and more ridiculously than the pulsing, sliding Bieber. That dance—a disco-equestrian shuffle—became a craze. To learn to do it, it helped to watch PSY.
The last two years have offered us a pair of dances—the Dougie and the Wobble—that became craze-ish. But each involves about a dozen moves, and is more fun in a group. PSY’s horse dance is easily done, easily mocked, and a lot less erotic than its forebear, Ginuwine’s pony dance. And it is everywhere. Every generation gets the dance phenomenon it deserves. So in a time of lingering economic want, Bieber’s shopping-mall smoothness was eclipsed by a phenomenon with more primal appeal: watching the rich guy who owns the mall act like a tool.
— Wesley Morris
The dream of toning shoes
Oh, toning shoes. You promised to help people lose weight, strengthen and tone their buttocks, legs, and abdominal muscles—all just by walking in sneakers with unstable soles. Those ads were so convincing, so inspiring, featuring gorgeous women with rock-hard bodies, clad in little beyond the gleaming white kickers. Ladies happily forked over $100, $200, or more for a pair of these magic shoes. You were the fastest-growing thing in the footwear industry. Sales hit $1 billion.
But something happened along the way—or rather, something didn’t. The sculpted legs and firm butt remained as elusive as ever. So people started challenging you. Medical professionals uncomfortably suggested that you might be doing more harm than good. Consumers filed lawsuits over all that money. Then the Feds began meddling, threw around phrases like “deceptive advertising.” Suddenly Reebok reached a $25 million deal to settle charges. You had loyalists who held out hope, true believers in brands like Skechers, with those rolling-bottom Shape-ups that were supposed to simulate walking on soft sand. But that hope came to an end in May, when Skechers agreed to pay a whopping $40 million to settle federal charges over those claims about weight loss, improved cardiovascular health, and more toned muscles.
The dream was always something else, really—the dream that you could exercise without exercising. And that may live on. But not you. Your run is over; industry sales plunged 75 percent this year, and you’ve quietly joined the Shake Weight, the Thighmaster, and those acai supplements in the back of the closet.
— Jenn Abelson
Red Sox exceptionalism
They suffered their worst season in a generation. They crashed and burned in a fireball of dysfunction. They unloaded three guys with huge contracts and puny stats. But in 2012 something ended for the Red Sox that can’t be measured in ERA or OPS: the sense that this team is special.
Red Sox history is littered with superlatives and larger-than-life moments, mostly because we fans made them so. Other underdogs have had successful seasons; we had an Impossible Dream. Other teams have climbed on the backs of excellent rookies; we had The Gold Dust Twins. Even when the Red Sox fielded scrappy teams that were no match for the Yankees (The Greatest Rivalry in Sports), we had a special name for them: Dirt Dogs. Other teams win championships; we broke The Curse. Other teams have fans; we are a Nation.
The 2012 Red Sox? They looked petty and unlovable at the start, boring at the end. It was hard to get excited about the biggest salary dump in history and the weakest lineup ever, as the Sox sank to their worst record since the last time they were irrelevant, 1966. Now, the team is flush with cash but spending it on aging players whose 2012 performances would have fit right in with this team’s. If Boston is rebuilding, it seems to be only to get back to the middle of the pack. The fans who made Wait Til Next Year the watchword of a generation are yawning as the Red Sox tell us, “Or maybe the year after that.”
— David Filipov
The Filene’s face-off
For more than four years, the most notable landmark in downtown Boston has been a hole, a two-story scar where the iconic Filene’s building used to stand, left by developers who couldn’t secure a loan to fulfill a lofty redevelopment dream. When work stopped in 2008, it marked the moment when the property stopped being a construction site and started being an eyesore.
Behind the hole was more than a national economic nose-dive. It was something much deeper, and more purely Bostonian: an old-fashioned political stare-down.
Mayor Thomas M. Menino believed the project’s lead partner, Vornado Realty Trust, was intentionally holding up the project to extract financial concessions from the city. Vornado responded with bluster, and the mayor countered in kind.
But 2012 finally brought a solution: Another developer, Millennium Partners, agreed to team up with Vornado and take the lead on the project. Millennium Partners has a team of local executives the mayor knows well, and the city promptly approved its development plan in September.
The end of the stalemate means that by the end of 2013, shovels will likely be digging at Filene’s again. Millennium is planning a 600-foot tower on the property with residences, offices, and retail stores. The firm is also promising to restore original details of the 1912 Filene’s store, so that its proud history will be remembered—and it will stand once again as the right kind of Boston icon.
— Casey Ross
At the time of his first encounter with humankind in 1971, Lonesome George of the Galapagos Islands was already alone in the world: the only known Pinta Island giant tortoise in existence. When he died unexpectedly this past June, at the age of 100-something, it was the end of more than just one creature’s life. It was the last gasp of George’s entire subspecies, and the closing of a window that conservationists had been trying to hold open for more than 40 years.
Though he was but a young tortoise at the time, George had already been through a lot when he was discovered by a mollusk researcher on Pinta and transferred to the Charles Darwin Research Center on nearby Santa Cruz Island. Most notably, he had survived an invasion of his home by a swarm of feral goats, whose arrival on Pinta devastated the local ecosystem and wiped out all of George’s friends and relatives in the Chelonoidis nigra abingdoni line.
As the last remaining member of his family, George represented a challenge to the biologists who cared for him, who tried desperately to find him a mate, hoping against hope that a female tortoise with a similar genetic makeup might entice him to procreate and thus revive his bloodline. That these efforts might come to naught made George a powerful symbol to conservationists: He appeared on postage stamps, Ecuadoran bank notes, key chains, and T-shirts, and was the subject of several books, including “Lonesome George: The Life and Loves of the World’s Most Famous Tortoise,” by Henry Nicholls. All the while, George remained reluctant to reproduce—“He sort of tried, apparently, from time to time, but rather awkwardly and without much enthusiasm,” said Nicholls in an e-mail. And though the females that were introduced to him over the years in his heart-shaped pool laid eggs on several occasions, they all turned out to be sadly inviable.
Now that George is gone, along with the hope that was poured into him, we are left with the memory of a tortoise who was at once strangely easy to identify with—would you want to mate with some random, close-but-not-quite-human stranger?—and baffling in his resistance to doing the one little thing that would have ensured the survival of his species. Above all, the years we humans spent trying to coax him into action remind us just how little power we have, not just over nature but over even one lousy reptile.
— Leon Neyfakh
By conventional standards, this presidential election looked to be a tossup: It seemed that a weak economy and a well-funded challenger might counteract the incumbent’s usual advantage. Days before the election, Michael Barone, the lead author of the Almanac of American Politics, predicted a landslide for GOP nominee Mitt Romney. “Fundamentals,” he wrote.
But in 2012, this kind of semi-informed guesswork became obsolete, a casualty of savvier statistical modeling and a proliferation of public polls. Even as Romney bobbed up and down in polls throughout the fall, websites such as Real Clear Politics were publishing polling averages that showed a clear Electoral College advantage for the incumbent. Using similar numbers, statistician Nate Silver made accurate calls for every state in the presidential race and nearly every US Senate race.
The final crackup for traditional horse-race punditry came on election night, and it was ugly. When the Fox News Channel called Ohio and the election for Democratic incumbent Barack Obama, commentator Karl Rove wouldn’t have it. The legendary political operative insisted so vehemently that more Republican votes would emerge that Fox sent anchor Megyn Kelly to grill the network’s own polling analysts. But the quants had it right; Obama had won.
Despite their rout by the forces of math, pundits like Rove and Barone probably won’t want for TV appearances in the next election cycle. The tide of quantitative analysis isn’t rising quite fast enough to fill all the speaking slots on three 24-hour cable news channels. But so much for the age of election predictions based on a grizzled political pro’s instincts. This was the year when anyone putting money on the race learned to listen to geeks with spreadsheets.
— Dante Ramos
On my wall as a teenager I pinned a Bazooka Joe comic starring Joe’s orange-haired girlfriend Zena and Johnny Depp. In the first frame, Zena dreams that she’s on a date with Depp, and he says, “Will I see you pretty soon?” In the second frame, Zena has grabbed him around the neck, his eyes have gone squiggly with panic, and she is screaming, “What’s the matter? Don’t you think I’m pretty NOW?”
Bazooka Joe’s unhinged, occasionally psychotic universe has now imploded: This year, Topps discontinued the long-running bubble-gum-wrapper series after nearly 60 years, to be replaced by a graffiti-inspired neon rebranding and brainteasers on the inserts. We’ll never learn what repulsive injury Joe conceals behind the eye-patch, whether Mort has a mouth under his turtleneck or just a smooth flap of skin.
But those mysteries are only a small part of what’s lost along with the waxy little cartoons. Bazooka Joe punchlines, which had barely been updated since the 1950s, were one of the few remaining relics of a snappy, two-beat, Borscht Belt-style humor parodying man’s inhumanity to man. Compared to the primary-color wholesomeness of the more enduring Archie comics, this was Hobbes in two panels (Ursula, to Joe: “Metaldude really saved my party Saturday night!” Joe: “What did he do?” Ursula: “He left!”). Sure, Joe, that plucky “mystic master of space and time,” could eat sandwiches on the moon or hop on his time-traveling skateboard to deliver cheerful zingers to Shakespeare and Picasso. But the real message was always that life could be cruel, and that humor—and superpowers—might be crucial for survival.
— Britt Peterson