Everyone is safely vaccinated. You hug a bunch of old people, and they tell you that they’re proud of you. Strife melts away. Everyone takes to the streets to smile and shake hands. Differences are mended. The sky is bright. The air smells of comradery, satisfaction, French toast. Your high school girlfriend wants you back. She says, “I was wrong. You’re not always going to be a loser. You’re a real winner, mister.” And as she leans in to kiss you, a symphony orchestra strikes up Vivaldi’s “Spring.” Over her shoulder, Brad Pitt smiles knowingly at you and nods, as if to say, “Think it’s all gonna be all right, partner.”
You wake up tangled in sheets. The room is dark, and the world is what it’s always been. The strange feeling that dream gave you – scientists call it happiness – fades away in the cold light of your empty room. You sit on the side of the bed. This is life – is, was, and will be.
I’m real tired of hearing the “2020 was bad” take. We all know this is the case. Seriously, once Amazon and Procter & Gamble start using a meme as advertising, you know that particular dead horse is way beyond beaten. But the cavalcade of anti-2020 takes remains understandable, given the state of things.
The situation has been unpleasant for the past 10 months. As Job said, “But [God] stands alone, and who can oppose Him? He does whatever He pleases. He carries out His decree against me, and many such plans He still has in store. That is why I am terrified before Him; when I think of all this, I fear Him. God has made my heart faint; the Almighty has terrified me.”
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Or as Thomas Ligotti said, “At long last a restrained voice cries out: What is this life? But only silence answers, and it mocks every mad hope you ever held.”
Or as Joe Pera said, “Oh, shoot.”
Despite this, as I look back and ponder in order to write this long, rambling, entirely unnecessary year in the review that literally no one asked for, I think that it’s worth remembering how lucky we are. While that sentence might set your eyes a-rolling, it really shouldn’t. Think about it this way. How many pillagers have you dealt with this year? Fellas, were you able to fell enough wildebeest to feed the children this winter? Polio got you down? Flashbacks from the Somme? Lack of running water? If you have read literally any history at all, it’s obvious that we’re still much better off than just about everyone else ever, and while that’s not always great consolation it’s good to consider before you start complaining.
And so now let’s start complaining.
My 2020 was a simple story. Last December, I got a new job as the managing editor of this here publication after a couple years working as a “Word Processing Coordinator” for a big corporation.
I remember when I got the email offering me the job. I said, “Things are looking up for little ol’ Archer. Yes, they sure are. They were all wrong about you, Archie, my boy. You’re golden, horse man, golden.”
A couple of months working at the MilMag offices passed, and then March. The story has been told. We got slap-chopped in the face, and all of us ended up working from home and have been ever since. I consider myself extremely lucky. Many folks ended up indefinitely furloughed or laid off, and to be able to continue working from home is an absolute privilege.
Although I did shell out like 200 bucks to buy four new button-up shirts and some shoes in January, expecting to wear them to work, and they’re now gathering dust. So, you know, I have my struggles, too.
Working from home is a lot like an extremely in-depth video game. There are emails, Zoom calls, Slack messages, assignments and deadlines, but in reality, it’s just you and a screen for hours. When the day is done, it feels like logging off a marathon God of War session. For the first few months, we reworked our whole production process to operate remotely, and I think we did pretty well. There have definitely been benefits to leaving the office. Being extremely quiet and awkward in person, I find Slack to be an ideal communication channel. I can listen to music on loudspeakers while working. There’s no need to hold it in when I find myself in the midst of, what we might call, a gaseous episode.
A lot of the magazine work, especially early on, revolved around how to report on a city in the midst of pandemic. As a magazine that devotes a lot of content to cultural events and restaurants, there were quite a few adjustments to be made. I think we did well, but I’m biased.
In an experience I believe I share with many, the days seemed to all melt together. When did I talk to that guy? Last week? Two months ago? But things got much clearer in August, specifically on one night when I was on the phone with a friend from college talking about Succession, and I started getting alerts on my phone about a police shooting a couple miles away and a growing crowd downtown. The night got much worse from there.
Living in Kenosha that week was unpleasant. Not the most brilliant observation, but that’s what it was. The news got worse and worse each day up to the second shooting and two more deaths. Even when things calmed down, the lingering dread remained. That feeling over the next few weeks was comparable to watching a guy smoking while pumping gas.
These past few weeks have alleviated the dread somewhat, with much-welcome vaccine news rolling in. Now, as we roll toward the end of 2020, I think the most positive possible way to wrap up a year in review would be to pass on the few good things I discovered this year. They made the bad times a little better for me, and maybe they can do the same for you.
With more time to read, I landed on a few favorites this year. Self Care by Leigh Stein is the funniest book I’ve read in a long time. Actual laugh-out-loud funny, which is super weird when you’re just sitting there reading alone. The Meditations by Marcus Aurelius and The Ascent of Mount Carmel by St. John of the Cross are both must-read methods for persevering in the face of a less-than-ideal existence. A Congregation of Jackals by S. Craig Zahler is a brutal, witty western-horror novel that I expected to read in a week and ended up tearing through in a day.
For some under-the-radar movies, I’d recommend two 2019 Ben Foster films, Galveston and Leave No Trace. I like Galveston more, but the fancy-pants critics seem to prefer Leave No Trace. Thunder Road is hilarious and painful and the best. And for horror fans, give Possum a try — it’s not fun, but if you’re a horror fan, that’s kind of your thing. Then, if you haven’t seen it yet, please for God’s sake, watch Succession — it’s everything and more.
If you’re looking to stop consuming and start doing, I got a few suggestions. In the summer, I re-discovered the joy of long-distance running. Just use the Runkeeper app to track distance and invest in some decent shoes. (I say this as a man who did not do so and has suffered the blister-ridden consequences.) In the winter, with no gym to use, I found that working out in a dirty garage with a mishmash of cheap, rusty equipment is actually pretty awesome. You can blast your own music. My setup is a kettle ball, a push-up stand, a pull-up bar, a bench for dips, battle ropes and a single 55-pound dumbbell. Total cost of all that is close to $200.
I also started eating more cheese, which I would obviously recommend.
And I guess that’s all I have to offer this year.
Not to be crude, but let’s hope the next one sucks a little less ass.