How The Heck Do You Sum Up 2020?

As many of you might suspect, writing is a form of therapy for me. The process of forcing my ideas, emotions and experiences into the tight regulations of grammar and verbal definition helps resolve the questions in my head, whether it’s early pandemic optimism, theories about history and culture or whatever the heck is going on with crows

Even when I’m travelling, bathing in new sensory experiences and simply reporting back what I’ve seen, this blog has always been a deeply personal place for me. I can’t work through my petty quandries through interpretive dance or splashing paint on a canvas — the open-ended lawlessness of those art forms terrifies me, so better to stick with paragraphs and sentences — so I type. Over the years, a small core group of you appear to find some kind of value in observing these thought processes in action, and I’m glad you’re here. 

I’ve been reflecting on the past year as we approach Christmas. I suspect many of you have been doing the same. All the cultural messaging out there right now — from online think pieces to Etsy Christmas ornaments — seem intent on putting this “dumpster fire” of a year behind us and moving on into an optimistic future. The idea is that this year has been an aberration, and in many ways it has. But in others, maybe not so much. 

So today, I’m going to try to work through 2020 as I experienced it. Many of these will feel familiar to most of you. Thanks for being here, and for being you. 

Things I Did This Year #1: Generally Freaked the F**k Out

Ho-ly shit, did I do some freaking out this year. In total, I think I spent more time freaking out in 2020 than in the prior 28.5 years combined. 

Here, I have tried to itemize the things I freaked out about this year. 

  1. Literal Fires Everywhere. Generally speaking, Seattleites do not ask about my accent. They tend to affect a kind of worldliness that you don’t find elsewhere in the United States, almost like they’re making a big deal of not making a big deal. They’ve travelled. They have foreign friends. Your accent is not impressive. I always notice when I leave the city because store clerks and waiters and passersby suddenly stop to ask where I’m from. It’s a fun way to make new friends in a small town, but when I come back to the city it’s honestly nice to not have the same conversation about kangaroos multiple times per day.
    But suddenly, in the early months of this year, that all changed. Seattleites started noticing my accent. “I just wanted to let you know that I’m really sorry about the fires,” they would say. “I hope your family and friends back there are safe.”
    This, of course, only deepened my love for my fellow Seattleites. Many asked if there was anything they could do. Seeing as though the nonprofits looking after wildlife and the newly homeless were overwhelmed with donations at the time, I instead urged them to have conversations with their friends and family about climate change.
    Unfortunately, we’ve had plenty of opportunities to talk about climate change this year. Unprecedented fires consumed Australia’s east coast, the North American west coast, the Amazon rainforest, South America’s Gran Chaco and even Siberia. Even under perfect conditions (that is, we stop our emissions tomorrow), we are going to live through a lot of environmental pain over the coming decades. We need to start mentally and physically preparing for the changes to come, and it starts with talking about climate change. 
  2. The Black Lives Matter counterrevolution. On a rainy morning in June, a friend and I rode our bikes to a soccer field south-east of central Seattle. We made our way onto the muddy field, which was completely filled with people. But the crowd was silent. It took more than two hours for the crowd to empty out of the field. By the time we reached Jefferson Park, just two miles away, the first ranks of marchers had finished their walk some three hours before. For hours, 60,000 citizens of this city marched in silence in the pouring rain, demonstrating in support of racial justice
    I attended a number of protests, rallies and marches in support of the Black Lives Matter movement throughout the summer and into the spring. None of those actions turned violent while I was present, but I did see armed National Guard soldiers in the street. I saw cops in riot gear who would later be filmed firing tear gas and rubber bullets at journalists and peaceful protesters
    As a member of the Seattle Bike Brigade, which holds public space for protesters and activists, I saw unmarked armoured SUVs packed with bulky armed men scoping our perimetres. I saw images of fellow bike brigadiers being violently assaulted, cheered on by some online commenters.
    As a relative newcomer to the United States — and a white man — I did not begin to understand the sheer insanity that surrounds issues of race in this country until this year. Here you have a society where every statistic under the sun shows that the colour of a person’s skin can predict the level of economic opportunity and social advancement they can reasonably expect in their lifetime. We know that attributing different cognitive abilities or traits to people according to their skin colour is racist pseudoscientific rubbish, and yet we observe racist outcomes in our society. It follows that our society must therefore be structured in a way that favours certain skin colours over others.
    Through speeches, signs and online resources throughout the summer I heard members of Seattle’s Black community diagnosing causes and proposing solutions for many of those racist outcomes. One of the main calls was to divert city funds that currently go to bloated, inefficient and overzealous police departments and instead invest them in disadvantaged communities.
    Not to editorialise too much here, but all of this seems perfectly reasonable. And yet based on the reaction from cops, much of the media and even the president himself, you’d have thought BLM activists were asking for the resurrection and coronation of Karl Marx, plus mandatory weekly enemas for everyone over the age of 18. The violent, irrational backlash against the Black Lives Matter movement — and the tepid political response by supposed supporters who hold political power — made me freak out more than a few times this year.
  3. A general lurch toward authoritarianism. The electoral defeat of Trumpism in November soothed my jangled nerves — we joined a spontaneous dance party complete with an impromptu brass band when Biden’s win was confirmed — but that was but a small blip in the generally freaky political year. The very fibre of Trump’s being prevents him from accepting the election result, and tens of millions of his supporters appear to believe him. The sheer stupidity of the situation — that tens of millions of Americans would happily sacrifice their democracy in service of a reality TV star’s childlike ego — is what makes this source of freakiness all the more maddening. 
    Meanwhile, this trend of democratic backsliding and emboldened authoritarians has been replicated all over the world, most vividly in places like Hong Kong, Venezuela and India. Borders are hardening, and we shouldn’t take it for granted that we’ll be quite so free to move around once we finally get a handle on COVID-19. Speaking of which…
  4. The Spicy Lung. The existence of a highly contagious and potentially fatal virus running rampant all over the world is scary enough on its own. But people’s reaction to it — especially here in the U.S. — has been a special source of freak outs this year.
    Essentially, COVID has birthed an online culture of conspiracy and misinformation into the real world, and given it real-world consequences. The fact that people have gone on holding huge weddings with minimal social distancing, that mask-wearing has become a political issue and that many of us know people who doubt the very existence of the virus has caused plenty of freakouts over here this year. 
  5. To summarise. I know the turn of a new year is supposed to be a time of optimism and hope, but I’m not going to sugarcoat it: humanity is in a bad way. Climate change, widening inequality and eroding faith in democracies are existential threats to the peaceful, mostly prosperous societies most of us currently enjoy — and most of our political leaders show very little capacity or desire to modernise our ageing institutions.  

Alright, that’s enough freaking out. 

Things I Did This Year #2: Missed the shit out of my family and friends. 

More than a year ago, H and I moved into a larger apartment. We had a summer’s worth of international and domestic guests headed our way, and we wanted a little extra space to be able to host them. Four groups had to cancel their tickets, and at least three or four more aborted nascent plans to come visit. It’s likely H and I will be moving to a new city midway through 2021, which means COVID robbed me of the opportunity to show people I love the sheer joy of Seattle in the summertime: kayaking in the San Juan Islands, sunsets on kelpy beaches, craft beer in cozy breweries, hiking in the Cascade and Olympic mountains, cycling the Burke-Gilman Trail, Funky 2 Death Fridays at the Seamonster Lounge and heck, even the legal weed. 

But the pandemic — and our governments’ varied (at best) abilities to manage it — robbed us of social interaction in more subtle ways. I missed my weekly ritual of cycling to Ballard for two hours of writing followed by an evening of beer drinking with writerly friends. Budding friendships were snuffed out, others were held in a weird state of limbo. And most opportunities to make new friends — serendipitous acquaintances and so on — were gone. I made a lot of new friends in 2018 and 2019, but only a few in 2020. 

Things I Did This Year #3: Actually had a really good time.

Late in the summer, I caught up with a friend to go for a bike ride. 

“How are you going?” I asked. 

“I mean, aside from everything,” he began, waving a hand over his shoulder, “I’m pretty good.” 

And that’s largely been my story this year, too. Aside from the existential dread I feel when wildfire smoke makes going outside hazardous, or when I see right-wing paramilitaries openly toting firearms in a local park, or when I see people protesting pandemic control measures like masks and lockdowns, my year has been pretty decent. 

Business closures meant I was outside more often than any time since H and I drove Steve the Ute around Australia. Rather than sitting in bars or going to restaurants, I was cycling city streets or nearby islands, surfing on the Pacific coast, hiking in the Cascades and kayaking in the San Juan Islands. For that, it was probably the best summer I’ve had in quite a while. 

Meanwhile, my employer has so far rode out the economic crisis mostly intact (touch wood), and I was able to do my job from home. (I was, after all, already working from home pre-pandemic.) I know plenty of folk out there who are doing without paychecks right now, and I feel very lucky. I even managed to enjoy my work a little, too.

I also finished (finally!) the manuscript for my book, and just recently finished writing the accompanying documents (audience profiles, marketing plans, competitive title analyses) that agents and publishers require from a writer’s pitch. I’m already sending it out to publishers and agents, though I’m early in the process and I’m sure this will become a dispiriting slog before long. Meanwhile, I’m planning an expansion of my writing skills and daydreaming about future projects. 

Finally, the people around me are largely okay. Like many of us, I have friends whose friends or family members have caught or, in some cases, died of COVID-19, but so far my immediate circle remains intact. (I’m knocking on wood again — a chair — as I write this.) I have never been more thankful for that. 

Summing Up

Over the last year I’ve been listening to the Revolutions podcast, a masterful series about the wave of independence movements and political revolts that swept back and forth across the Atlantic between the late 18th and early 20th centuries. In an interview this year Duncan, an American residing in France, was asked if the current political moment reminded him of any of the historical periods he had covered in his podcast. 

His answer was 1848, a year that saw multiple republican and independence movements explode simultaneously across Europe. Eventually, each of these movements were repressed under the brutal boot of imperial autocrats, subduing the coming republican wave for at least a generation. 

In 2019 and 2020, protest movements exploded all over the world. There have been enormous feminist demonstrations in Mexico, constitutional amendment campaigns in Chile, a diehard (if tragically futile) defense of democracy in Hong Kong, Black Lives Matter marches in the United States, yellow vests in France, anti-monarchy protests in Thailand, an anti-police movements in Nigeria and Colombia, a nationwide condemnation of ineffective sectarian rule in Lebanon and worldwide climate strikes. Even the elevation of Donald Trump — easily the most corrupting influence on the U.S. government in modern history — reflects a general sentiment among ordinary people that the world’s current crop of leaders are not taking us in a good direction. 

One of the most powerful protest movements I’ve ever seen.

In the U.S., recently leaked audio from a meeting between President-Elect Joe Biden and civil rights leaders suggests that the next federal administration will pay little more than lip service to the demands of the Black Lives Matter movement. Not addressing those concerns all but guarantees more tragedies, more protests, more violence. 

But there is little that you or I can actually do to affect these large and troubling courses of events. Mostly, we can simply try to put good energy into the world and try to be a positive influence on the people around us. When we eventually move into a post-COVID world, the onus is on us to reestablish lost connections and check in with people we haven’t seen in a while. Find the people in your family, friend group or neighbourhood who have become isolated over the last year and invite them back into the world. 

In the meantime, send your frustrations in to this website, which will print and then burn whatever you send them in a literal dumpster.

It’s not much, but it is something. I hope you all have a great Christmas, and I’ll see you back here next year. 

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