There was a fleeting moment in the middle of the first lockdowns, when everyone nurtured sourdough starters and kitchen gardens, when I thought we’d emerge from the pandemic more human, more connected with nature, more deeply connected with one another.
Instead, as my kids returned to school in real life this week (first time in 13 months) and I returned to flying for work, I felt thrust back into the capitalistic machine, a robotic cog, moving through the airport at the highest efficiency and working my various jobs until late at night each night, because there were not enough hours in a day.
How’d we all get knocked to our knees, our lives so small and contained, social justice reckonings in every direction, but not try and interrogate or upend America’s workism, nay, workaholism? If the pandemic taught us anything, it’s that nothing about the way we live is inevitable. So why not collectively live better, do better, and be less beholden to profit, growth, status, wealth? We can individually opt out, sure, but the larger systemic forces remain so stubbornly the same.
It exhausts me. I am so tired already, after just a week or so of being fully vaccinated and a handful of days no longer being a teacher and caregiver at the same time. It feels like the companies I work for and the clients we’re chasing and the objective standards for “success” are all unchanged, despite the fact I am walking around in new skin.
Me: Weren’t we supposed to get a reset of our values?
Friend Tim: Nah, we just have to work harder to make up for the past 13 months.
After Trump was elected, I made it a goal to spend more time reading books, as an escape from the ephemeral headlines that were zapping my brain and frying my soul. In 2017, 2018 and 2019 I read at a pace of a book a week.
This year I signed a deal with Dutton, a division of Penguin Random House, to write my own actual book! But when it came to reading books, I didn’t do much of what I intended.
Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott
Wow, No, Thank you, Samantha Irby
The Masters Tools Will Never Dismantle The Masters House, Audre Lorde
Don’t Call Us Dead: Poems, Danez Smith
Between the World and Me, Tanehisi Coates
Minor Feelings, Cathy Park Hong
Someone Who Will Love You In All You Damaged Glory, Raphael Bob Waksberg
The First Bad Man, Miranda July
Tender is the Night, F. Scott Fitzgerald
How Much Of These Hills Is Gold?, C. Pam Zhang
Started but Didn’t Finish: Pale Fire, Vladimir Nabokov. I know, I know, such a classic. I just got too distracted. The Night of the Gun, by David Carr. I am a great admirer of that late journalist, and he signed Stiles’ copy of it, but neither of us had gotten around to reading the book. I made it about halfway through but lost interest. The Sexual Life of Catherine M, which the poet/artist Maggie Smith cited as an inspiration for her work. I don’t know if it was the translation from French or the lack of a structure but I just could not get through it.
Picking ‘Em: I had been prioritizing works by women and people of color, but this year I just read anything I was reviewing for work, books my friends recommended, or art by artists I already like. For example, the end of Bojack Horseman swelled and broke my heart, so I had to read its creator’s short story collection. In the fall I reconnected with Matt Weiner, a hypersmart dude who wrote Mad Men, so a couple of the books at the end of my year were from his recommendations.
Books by Author Gender
Books by Classification
I still read on my Kindle, and got a second one this year because I misplace my Kindle so much. Recall from my previous years’ posts that I read the most on planes. This year I spent less time on planes than I have since I was maybe 18 years old. So that evaporated my dedicated book reading time. I still love it, though, and just need to be more disciplined about reading at home.
“It felt vaguely like being forced to live in a building splintered by a wrecking ball before the rebuilding had begun. Quarantine didn’t just take things away; it revealed — with a harsh, unrelenting clarity — what had already been lost.”
This year forced us to our knees. Like so many others, I found myself disoriented and trapped inside, falling to my emotional nadir. We lost Kobe Bryant. John Lewis. Ruth Bader Ginsburg. And some 300,000 Americans to the plague. We yearned for the days when the rule of law was a given. America as we know it came apart at the seams. Even our best efforts to bridge differences won’t work by themselves, they require that the digital platforms shattering reality in the name of “consumer choice” will have to dramatically change or be regulated into doing so.
I experienced COVID year primarily as a loss of innocence — the year I finally, finally had to grow up. At one point this summer, we were under stay-at-home orders (for rioting) in the midst of stay-at-home orders (for coronavirus). Did we ever think we’d miss each other like this, that we’d yearn for the joy of company and coincidence, serendipity and surprise, the magic of sharing poorly ventilated spaces with strangers? Grief, loss and identity shift defined 2020, both in the universal sense, and in a personal one.
Despite a year of radical change, I write this post feeling privileged and contented. The threat of the virus took away so much — loved ones, freedom, hugs, travel, an entire way of life I took for granted. But it gave, too. A return to nature. A stillness in which, egad, we could be alone with our thoughts. Time for introspection! And for me, a real deepening of my relationships. Because there were no longer the “friends” you just run into at a drop-off, or at conferences, you had to be intentional about how you spent your time and who you reached out to check-in on. I was more deliberate with my friendships than ever, and I felt that intention among the loved ones who supported me.
I’m also fortunate to be surrounded (more than ever, since they aren’t in school) by my loud, vibrant, healthy kids who remind us how adaptable humanity is at its essence. To borrow from Des’ree’s anthem from my millennial coming-of-age, we gotta be a little bit badder, a little bit bolder, a little bit wiser, harder, tougher.
Moments of Unadulterated Joy:This gas station in LA, the day the networks finally called the election for Joe Biden. These kids, experiencing the drum solo in “In the Air Tonight”
MVP New Friends: Jenn and Drew, who are the parents of my daughter Eva’s good friend Leif. They were rocks as we made Sunday pool time a regular thing to get through this hell year. Sarah Svoboda, who is my producer at VICE, became one of my closest girlfriends overnight. Rob, with whom I’d split giant breakfast burritos after five mile runs. I am now simultaneously fatter and in better cardiovascular shape.
MVP Snack:Brown sugar boba popsicles saved my 2020. I became an accidental boba pop influencer! My only other influencing was for the Saved by the Bell pop-up in West Hollywood, which was a special treat.
The Energy To Bring To All Things: It’s what I call the Michaela Coel energy, after reading this landmark profile of the singular artist who brought us Chewing Gum and I May Destroy You. We say this, from here on out: ‘This is what I need. Are you good enough to give it to me?’ Not ‘Am I good enough to deserve the kind of treatment that I want?’
Regrets: Never did learn how to play the ukulele. Barely made progress on my book, which was supposed to be mostly done by now, in a parallel universe. My relationships felt very COVID-blocked, to different degrees.
My Gamechanger: Jungian depth psychology with a dream analyst. This is the most woo-woo I’ve ever sounded, I realize. But after dipping in and out of traditional, more conventional cognitive behavioral therapy for most my adult life, Friend Jenn told me about her dream analyst and I started seeing him over Zoom and I have never had a clearer and deeper understanding of my inner life. I feel more whole and more grounded in an organizing philosophy for meaning than, well, ever. I credit it with keeping me contented through the crucible that was 2020.
Also this year, in no particular order, and an admittedly incomplete list:
“What then is time? If no one asks me, I know. If I wish to explain it to one who asks, I know not.” — St. Augustine
Friend Jenn is an ER doctor. At the beginning of March, when it was clear the coronavirus would ravage the country and the richest nation in the world couldn’t supply enough N95 masks for its hospital workers, she and the other docs slid their masks into brown paper bags at the end of their shifts and wrote the dates on those bags. The masks could sit for five days — the estimated time for virus to die off — before cleaning and re-using them, if necessary.
“The other day I was marking my paper bag and I remembered writing March 3,” she said. “Now suddenly I’m writing November dates.”
Was this the longest year, or the shortest year? First the toilet paper ran out at Costco. Then I rushed off a New York subway two stops early because I was too scared to cough while Chinese — back then, only Wuhan was locked down and the anti-Asian racism raged. Then yellow caution tape went up around the playgrounds and masks went up on our faces. I picked up Eva from school, and it still hasn’t reopened. Friends started gardens, and sourdough. In June, I started wearing a Christmas sweatshirt that said, “Merry Merry Merry” to try and cheer myself up. QR codes came back, for menus at restaurants only open in what used to be their parking lots. We attended drive-by birthday parades. And Zoom weddings. The three-year-old showed me how to mute and un-mute her Zooms. We got to know the parks and the running trails and everything that could happen outside. I smized as much as I could.
I’m still wearing that Christmas sweatshirt, only, it’s actually Christmastime now.
Time’s elasticity has never mystified me more. The Groundhog Day-ness of our routines, the complete lack of travel, the death of serendipity, surprise and strangers … did it stretch time or compress it?
Neurologists say novelty enhances memory, and while 2020 was devoid of the “novelty” we used to plan for — vacations, milestones, the gatherings where you’d meet novel new people, we got surprises we didn’t want: a public health crisis, economic crisis and social crisis. A presidential election, while resolved, has permanently damaged our already fraught American democracy. Being hyper-alert and anxious all the time would, reasonably, stretch time in the way trauma does. And relationally, I feel as if I’ve known my COVID19 trench friends and “foxhole crushes” for 80 percent of my adult life, despite really only deepening our friendships over the grueling months of the plague.
We wanted the election to hurry up and come so we could be put out of our uncertainty. We wanted this year to hurry up and end. And suddenly it’s almost over and I’m sitting here thinking, WTF happened to this entire year? What have I done with myself, if anything?
Psychologists study the “trip home effect,” an illusion in which we feel like the drive back from a destination is shorter, even when it’s the same distance. The common explanation was that familiarity undergirded that feeling — you recognize the landmarks on the way back, and you’re devoid of the original uncertainty of that drive. A more recent study points at expectation as the reason why the drive home seems shorter: “Initial optimism made the trip out feel longer than expected … pessimism starting back makes the trip home feel shorter.”
Or, it’s about distraction: You’re more focused on a target when you’re going somewhere for the first time, but when you’re coming home, you’re more easily distracted, making the trip seem shorter.
In pondering the elasticity of time this year, and how the trip home effect might relate, I stumbled on perhaps the bigger, more philosophical question: Is life in a pandemic trying to get to a destination, or trying to get home?
Since the 2016 Trump election, I have made it a priority to read at least 52 books a year, and have kept up that pace during the tumultuous years since. I find it a balm to bury myself in a book and do some “deep reading,” as Ezra Klein calls it, and am better for it. I see new frameworks and systems, find myself connecting concepts to life or work, and in general, reading expands me and I love it.
This year is different. (The word “different” is doing a LOT of work there.) I am trying to write a book of my own, which is not going well for all the reasons you can expect. And I find it hard to concentrate long enough to read well. Which isn’t to say there hasn’t been impressive creative work coming out this year. So I’ll recommend a few periodicals that resonated with me and might stay with you, too.
This gutting news came at the end of a four day trip to the Mojave Desert for VICE, where we drove past mountains on fire to see the burn scar of an August wildfire that killed tens of thousands of trees in the largest Joshua Tree forest in the world.
Climate change was in the haze and the heat. Climate change was under our feet, in the scorched earth on which we stood. Reporting this devastation — and efforts to do something about it — is crucial and I’m pleased we got to get the exclusive footage up there in the Mojave National Preserve. I’ll share this visual, heart-breaking story on Monday. Behind-the-scenes, it meant briefly returning to BC — Before COVID, when I took long road trips or hopped on planes all the time for these intense reporting trips.
Everything is changed. Driving out to Joshua Tree, the sound guy and I avoided stopping anywhere. Hotels don’t do cleaning service because COVID. Everyone is fortified with their masks and clear plastic shields. We wore masks in all the interviews, even though they took place outside, because of the optics and for the extra protection.
Flying for the last leg of the reporting made me feel anxious and suspicious. I was scared to sneeze. In the Sacramento airport on my way home (from the one interview we flew into town for), only one restaurant in the food court remained open — the vegetarian one, natch.
But we also found joy and serendipity on this trip. As a VICE team, we ate and drank together outside by the pool after long days, sunburned from the desert and pricked by burrs at our ankles. Producer Sarah got a chance to see her sister, brother-in-law and toddler niece for the first time since Christmas when we did a drive by their balcony in Sacramento. My friend Rachel and her new baby, Simone, are also staying in Sac during COVID and the ladies drove out to our interview location so I could sneak a moment with Baby Simone. My little brother, Roger, had come to LA to help care for the girls while I was away, and we siblings were able to reunite for the first time since December at LAX for a mere moment, as he was headed home to Dallas and I had just landed from Sacramento.
After I got home and got the girls down, David Greene, one of my most reliable drinking buddies and closest friends from NPR West, gathered a few of the regular friend squad for a night out of drinking and revelry like the old times. Only, we were always outside and we hugged with masks on and with our faces turned as far away from one another as possible. We used to go drinking together at least weekly, and we hadn’t since March. Finally we were all together again which felt restorative after a nonstop reporting trip and given the news, a tough, tough day.
I got home just before midnight and the earth shook. At first I thought, oh, maybe I’m drunker than I thought but nope, nope, it was an earthquake. Magnitude 4.8, and no damage or injuries here, but a reminder the ground beneath us is always changing.
If there is one big idea I have really spent the year interrogating and emphasizing through my work this year, whether it’s my book (which is about capitalist-driven definitions of beauty that drive an endless cycle and competition toward unachievable standards), or through my newish social science and parenting podcast, Labor, it’s about the fallacy of emphasizing personal responsibility over systemic fixes.
Whether we’re talking about climate, health and caregiving policies, how we treat poor people or reckon with race, it all boils down to this: The US consistently asks individuals to take both the blame for systemic problems and the responsibility for solving them. This strain is synonymous with neoliberalism, which dominates the globe’s economic systems, and especially so in American society and culture.
The toxicity of this idea is made tragically clear in our largely preventable COVID hellscape this year. Ed Yong writes:
“Pushing for universal health care is harder than shaming an unmasked stranger. Fixing systemic problems is more difficult than spewing moralism, and Americans gravitated toward the latter. News outlets illustrated pandemic articles with (often distorted) photos of beaches, even though open-air spaces offer low-risk ways for people to enjoy themselves. Marcus attributes this tendency to America’s puritanical roots, which conflate pleasure with irresponsibility, and which prize shame over support. “The shaming gets codified into bad policy,” she says.”
I also serendipitously got to reinforce this idea in a TED Talk I introduced this summer, from the journalist George Monbiot.
Gulped down my vitamins with vodka
Wiped my own snot onto my shirt sleeve
Wore Sunday Funday shirt on Tuesdays, and Thursdays, but who knows which day it was, ever
Accidentally showed up a day early for someone’s surprise birthday parade
Finally hung that one framed picture
Organized little plastic baggies of toiletries plus money for the homeless
Went to a bunch of drive-thrus, masked
Yelled a lot at my kids, sorry
Got yelled at by my kids, they’re not sorry Wrote fifty letters to strangers
Received so many thoughtful, personal responses from my new pen pals
Helped connect doctors and frontline workers with the tech industry so they could get their own Slack to share information
Let toddler go topless all the time
Read a book that said, without irony, “Have you asked your spirit guides for help?”
Considered dying my hair with Kool-aid, just to try it
Started a food scrap garden experiment
They use the term “the streets” as a catch-all for beat reporters who “work them,” but you don’t actually have to be ON the streets for it. But this week for reporting with my latest new employer, VICE, we were literally on the streets of Santa Monica and Venice, with the homeless. The official number of those experiencing homelessness in LA County is something like 66,000.
For me this was a return to the field — or streets — for the first time since the original stay-at-home order hit California in early March. I’m working with VICE News as a correspondent on the West coast now, made possible by becoming a project person earlier this year. (I’m not contractually tied to any org exclusively anymore, wheeeee!)
The crew and I were talking over tacos on Wednesday, saying we were honored to be telling a story about the emergency effort to get vulnerable homeless off the streets as the virus raged, because it’s an opportunity to tell the stories and flesh out those experiencing homelessness. Humanizing people who so often go unseen in our communities even though they live among us and are full and complex human beings, is what journalism is here for.
But of course, reporting during COVID19 is a different, eerie ballgame. We had risk assessment people monitoring us and our reporting environs. We had a doctor who made sure we kept enough distance or that we were never in any indoor space for longer than a few minutes. We were sanitizing nonstop, we were temperature checked everywhere, we were gloved and SO masked that I will technically be appearing on your television but largely unseen, because I and others are all masked, all the time.
So much delight to note from behind the scenes: I love watching documentary camera men do the dance of keeping out of each other’s shots and figuring out who is going to position where, all while rolling on the action. They just gesture at each other and communicate with their silent movements. I love our LA native musician who worked sound, Defari, who made all our mics invisible. I love being with a crew again, especially a producer who handled all the logistics and booking and planning and made sure that if I missed a question, it was covered.
Sarah the producer and I became fast friends and ended up laughing over drinks on patios after each long shoot day; it made this upside down time in our upside down world feel a little bit normal, and that’s a huge gift.