Reflections on Alexander’s Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Year

Even though it wasn’t all so bad.

“It has been a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. My mom says some days are like that. Even in Australia.” — Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, Judith Viorst

2020. Oof.

The year doesn’t need another trite recap of world events, and that is not what you will find here. If you somehow got to this page looking for one, read Dave Barry, watch Death to 2020, binge the Explaining the Pandemic to my Past Self series, or just watch the trailer. And when future generations ask me to describe the compounding clusterfuckery that was 2020, I already know I will simply share this, because it’s a much more accurate representation of the day-to-day experience:

I feel you, Prime Minister.

Speechless, perplexed, yet still having to come up with an answer on how to move forward, and overdue for a haircut and shave— this was my 2020.

Cheap jokes aside, it wasn’t all bad. My dad got a new kidney, which he had been awaiting for more than 4 years. I had a stable job and, given that my top two discretionary expenditures are travel and restaurants (and I spent most of the year in Michigan vs. San Francisco), I saved more money than I ever have. At least to my knowledge, I didn’t get COVID, and no one I know died from it. Did I mention my dad got a new kidney? Compared to most statistically likely outcomes, I won the 2020 lottery.

And plenty of good things happened in the world, like this and this, despite on the whole being a biblically perfect shitstorm. Most prescient of all, we developed a vaccine to a new pathogen in less than a year. The roll-out is too slow and too chaotic, but it can’t be overstated how optimistic this collective human achievement should make us about our future and our potential to solve problems.

(And, coincidentally, Australia actually did pretty darn well, relatively speaking.)

It is no magic secret that stepping outside your comfort zone can be a catalyst for growth. 2020 (sometimes quite literally) lit most of mine on fire.

As far as I am concerned, 2020 started March 1, 2020 and will formally end March 1, 2021, so I’ll start there.

First, a brief, poorly-timed stop to see my family and friends in Michigan turned into a 3-month stay in my friend’s basement. I lived out of a suitcase packed for 2 weeks, complete with a (false, phew) COVID scare and quarantine that ended just as shelter-in-place began. I was pretty fortunate to be sheltered with a couple I know well, but it was still just a dark, bleak period — even if you’re watching the world collapse with friends and alcohol, you’re still watching the world collapse (and in my case, living as a perpetual third wheel).

During this time, I learned that apparently I am a masochist. Where most people I know sought escapism and engaged in denial (“This will be over in a few weeks!”), I read The Plague by Albert Camus, and I watched a lot of movies about World War I, World War II and the Holocaust. “As long as I’m not being hunted,” I consoled myself, “I’m doing pretty okay, compared to other possible scenarios.”

(Besides, Jojo Rabbit was a comedy, even if it was about a boy whose invisible friend was Adolf Hilter.)

As dark as this time was, I deeply miss one aspect: for a very precious moment in time, everyone seemed to be on the same page, and the morally correct course of action had never been more clear: stay at home, flatten the curve, and get through this together.

It wasn’t just applauding front-line workers. There was a camaraderie to in our shared anxiety, dread, and, more than anything, coping mechanisms. We were living through the major war of our lifetime — but we saw our comrades via Zoom, our trenches had running water and Amazon Prime, and our enemy was invisible. For the average person, valor was to not act, not to act. My war stories will be about watching televised games of horse, making stiff drinks to get through presidential COVD briefings, the first virtually recorded Saturday Night Live, hours-long virtual happy hours, meandering walks, and that one time we had to go in a store and someone wasn’t wearing a mask.

Also, the pacing. God! The pacing! Hours were spent walking into a room, pacing back and forth considering and eventually rejecting the activity offered by that room (because you already played video games, cleaned, ate, slept, showered, or whatever else that day), and moving on to the next room in search of inspiration. And then watching your housemates do the same later in the day.

It was no way to live, but at least it felt like we were in it together.

Finding respite wherever possible in weird fusion (yes, that’s zaatar on my matzah and charoset), outdoor dinners, and the baby groundhogs under our deck.
Scenes from the apocalypse: waiting in lines with masks, bleak empty scenery, cheap gas…but some good puns.

That first phase transitioned into the second when my girlfriend Tamar drove out from California in the summer to “extended staycation” (we hadn’t ever lived together!), so I could continue helping my dad as he awaited his transplant. That was certainly, on the whole, a happier and less bleak period of the year — we had a huge house that cost less than my single-room rent in San Francisco, regularly cooked lavish feasts, ate almost every meal in a spacious backyard garden, had multiple (unattended) bonfires per month, and swam in a lot of lakes. Most critically, she brought my clothes from California, meaning I finally had an appropriate amount of underwear, and I was no longer engaged in a Sisyphean struggle vs. my own laundry.

In other words, we had activities. We never did risk outdoor dining and bars, but we went to a couple drive-in movies and found long hikes and secluded beaches. Our world (which used to include traveling to places like Jordan and Sardinia) wasn’t big, but it was big enough (and new enough, not having lived in Michigan in 9+ years) to find places that were enjoyable in their own right, not “enjoyable, all things considered.” For a few months, life was more than the quotidian.

Lake Michigan
Life gets a bit brighter when your hair is no longer covering your eyes.

Yet, as the world reopened, and unrest raged through nearly every city in America, summer also felt much more isolating, frustrating, and stifling. I was not as depressed or exasperated, but every activity was an exercise in moral calculus. Does this type of activity spread COVID? Welp, guess I can’t do that anymore. Is this restaurant run by a COVID-denier, maskhole, or closet racist? Welp, guess I can’t order from there anymore. What is an acceptable level of risk? What is an essential enough reason? What is a justifiable enough cause to gather and protest (or even support others in doing so)?

We were no longer on the same page about what to do, and it showed in surging cases. The feeling of camaraderie — which was always a farce to begin with, distorted by our self-made social media echo chambers — faded into cycles of protests and violence (about masks, about police brutality, about the election). The defining moments of my generation were happening, and I was experiencing them through a 5.8-inch-diagonal screen.

Left: “Social distancing” at Spicer Orchards in Fenton, Michigan. Right: political signs hanging over highway overpasses in Battle Creek, Michigan. Much worse and not pictured was the one saying “Kyle Rittenhouse is a hero.”

That period lasted until October, when my dad finally received his transplant. Months later than expected, after 6 false alarms, and years spent obsessing over the logistics and details, my dad entered the pre-operating room “as one long prepared, and graced with courage” (The Gods Abandon Antony, C.P. Cavafy). The operation was straightforward and successful, and for yet another very brief, precious moment in time, we could see a post-transplant, post-hospitals, post-Michigan, post-tethered, dare I say post-COVID future breaking over the horizon.

That hope faded quickly through 3 hospital readmissions, medication errors, infections, delirium, and fighting for attention from hospitals overrun by COVID. It was another dark, bleak period — except instead of being marked by nothing to do, it was marked by oscillations between crisis care and a never-ending drumbeat of needs and coordination. Instead of being marked by clear, shared consensus on the course of action, it was marked by wading through ambiguity and ceaseless advocacy. Especially from my mom, who I am quite convinced put the fear of God in the entire University of Toledo hospital system.

This period deserves its own treatment at some point, but if you want to know what it’s like to seek emergency medical attention during a raging pandemic, imagine:

  • Screaming at a triage nurse that someone with zero immune system can’t wait in a small room crowded with people with masks below their chin, and being told, “If I had somewhere to put him I’d have put him there.”
  • Waiting outside in the cold because catching pneumonia seemed less likely than convincing someone with a broken arm or gunshot wound to cover their nose with their mask.
  • Waiting in your car for 8+ hours because only one person can be with the patient at a time, and that’s how long it takes to get admitted.
  • Walking by someone responding to the screening questions about COVID symptoms, “Yes, I tested positive earlier today,” and jumping as far as you can away.
  • Seeing police officers walk around without masks and then act surprised or offended when you recoil in their presence. (Aside: I later got pulled over driving my dad back from the hospital, and when I asked the officer to put on a mask, he defended not wearing one by saying, “The wind is blowing!”)
  • Imploring hospital staff to cover their noses with their masks, as you simultaneously have to negotiate to find one that will come deal with your clear and present emergency vs. someone else’s clear and present emergency

These were all things that happened across multiple visits, across multiple hospitals. And they overlapped with what should have been a seminal moment in my career: Apple featuring a product I had started and worked on for 5+ years in their keynote. I could barely look at a screen that day. I woke up exhausted, sad, and alone on the couch in my dad’s apartment, surrounded by “Welcome home!” and “Mazel tov!” decorations — it was the day after his first re-admission due to delayed graft function. My mom was in quarantine.

This period lasted through early December, including a re-admission the night before my birthday. I rang in my 30th birthday that night by sitting on a bench overlooking a field in the nearby park, listening to the wind howl with Tamar. Just before midnight, I played some Sinatra from my phone and we slow-danced — an attempt to drown out, slow down, and speed up the passing of time all at once.

Fortunately, as of the time of this writing, it seems we are emerging from that very long, very dark period of recovery, and — like much of the world — are again starting to plan for the future with a cautious mix of hope and optimism. We got through Christmas and New Year’s uneventfully, and are waiting for one more green light from the doctors before I can take them back to Florida. From there, I have no idea, besides that I want to get vaccinated, eat at some restaurants, see my friends, and rejoin the realm of the living in 2021.

(Update: I wrote this around January 1, and then we had a stupid coup. I now feel completely vindicated in my assertion that 2020 will last until March 2021.)

Getting progressively more desperate for places to meander.
Finding meaning in an absurd and indifferent universe.

Such is the personal backdrop to a year where nearly all of my most valued sources of leisure and joy were declared unsafe, unethical, illegal, or all three — and where I was one of the lucky ones. Perhaps most disturbing of all was the realization that my happiness and fulfillment was so driven by extrinsic vs. intrinsic factors, and to the extent that is the case, you can’t truly own your state of mind.

As we look to “post-2020” —not just 2021 — I hope to take a few more things with me than a predisposition toward buying toilet paper in bulk.

On kindness and externalities

“A civilization is not destroyed by wicked people; it is not necessary that people be wicked but only that they be spineless.” — The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin

“The evil in the world comes almost always from ignorance, and goodwill can cause as much damage as ill-will if it is not enlightened. People are more often good than bad, though in fact that is not the question. But they are more or less ignorant and this is what one calls vice or virtue, the most appalling vice being the ignorance that thinks it knows everything and which consequently authorizes itself to kill. The murderer’s soul is blind, and there is no true goodness or fine love without the greatest possible degree of clear-sightedness.” — The Plague, Albert Camus

“Hello babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. On the outside, babies, you’ve got a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies — ‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.’” — God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, Kurt Vonnegut

All year long, I have heard people justify — in spite of every imaginable plea— bachelor parties, weddings, holiday gatherings, etc with some variant of: “Well, we can’t just put our lives on hold.” To which I always ask, “Why not?

The most coherent answers usually came from people who made little to no changes, and continued to go to packed indoor bars and parties to the maximum extent allowable. Ignoring the horrifically large percentage of the population that believes the whole thing is a hoax, it really was no deeper than “I can’t just put my life on hold.” They were unwilling to make mid-term, moderate sacrifices for the common good. I resented them for it, but the resentment was straightforward and easy to put in the same box as “If I get corona, I get corona” and move on. They were simply unkind people, or in denial, and deliberate ignorance is the deepest form of being unkind.

The next layer were those who insisted on making exceptions for “rituals.” These were the people that argued, “Surely this doesn’t apply to Christmas!” or insisted on proceeding with bachelor parties and vacations once the gravity of the pandemic was in full view. This was a spectrum (ranging from not giving a fuck at all during lockdown to requiring tests and keeping guest lists small when cases were relatively low), so I can’t paint them all with a single brush. Yet, every time I walked by big birthday and graduation parties in my neighborhood park, saw photos of gatherings on Facebook, or heard someone tell me about a big event they were proceeding with “but we’ll be totally safe!”, all I felt was sadness and dissonance. I never once heard a single justification that didn’t feel like a temporary acquiescence to, “Well, I can’t just put my life on hold.”

There never was anything stopping us from celebrating Thanksgiving or Christmas in July, two birthdays next year, etc — nada, zero, zilch — besides that it didn’t feel right. These are socially constructed events, with socially constructed rituals, and we have the ability to choose how they are observed. This was the most maddeningly unkind argument of all, because it was maddeningly hypocritical: it claimed a personal entitlement to normalcy while abrogating the responsibility to do one’s part to help others achieve it. Every variant of this argument, however understandable and deeply, undeniably human, was rooted somewhere in selfishness.

I had much more trouble putting this in a box and moving on than “If I get corona, I get corona.” They were friends, relatives, colleagues, and people I knew to otherwise strive to be good, reasonable, and intelligent people.

The final layer were people who passionately claimed they were conducting public life safely, perhaps even admonishing others for their lack of safe behavior, yet interpreted “safe” however they pleased. This was simultaneously an individual and collective failure. This passage from “The Logic of Pandemic Restrictions Is Falling Apart” (which I recommend reading in full) does a good job of illustrating why:

It isn’t just New York; in states across the country, local officials have urged caution and fastidiousness. But those words can seem tenuously connected, at best, to the types of safety measures they’ve put in place. In Rhode Island, for example, residents are prohibited from gathering with even one person outside their household, even in the open air of a public park. But inside a restaurant? Well, 25 people is fine. Hire a caterer? You’re legally cleared to have up to 75 outdoors. The governor’s executive order merely notes: “The lower attendance at such events, the lower the risk.” (The Rhode Island governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment.)

The the best explanation we got was, “Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.For fuck’s sake!

Our institutions failed to give us clear and consistent rules, and in their absence, we decided for ourselves when and how to apply the guidelines we had. Everyone knew the basics: wear masks in public, wash your hands, hang out outside, and stay six feet apart. But were “quarantine pods” and “social bubbles” ever actually okay? What about outdoor restaurants? What about haircuts? What about going to the dentist? If you were more than six feet apart and outside, did you have to wear a mask? What if you know that friend hasn’t been anywhere in a week? Two weeks? What if you were running? What if you’re 25 feet apart? What if they’re 65+?

The answer is that it depends, and without an on-call epidemiologist or background in infectious diseases, we interpreted the rules through our own shittier, less science-informed and more biased version of this calculator (which came out in late summer, and should be plastered on every public health website). That was always going to go poorly, but it didn’t have to mean (as it often seemed to) pretending all outdoor gatherings were safe, that “they say they hardly ever leave the house” means zero-risk, and anything is safe as long as you’re wearing a mask. Absolutely nobody was ethically perfect in making these decisions — in fact, I’m quite certain 99%+ of the population, myself included, fell into all three of these categories at some point in 2020 — but it sure seems like some cultures were kinder than others in 2020:

The thing about rules, guidelines, and norms related to the common good is that they are not fucking about you. So god damn it, just be kind.

On moral hazard

Our most pernicious systems are the ones that don’t have a single failure point, like a dictatorship. They’re the ones perpetuated by lots of individual actors who can distance their decisions (where you shop, who you hire, who you vote for, what ideas you promote in public and private conversations) from the ultimate harm they cause. The most exhausting part of 2020 was that it felt like every decision, however minute, was a homework assignment for a moral philosophy course in trying to navigate the web of moral hazard.

In many cases, though, 2020 merely highlighted longstanding issues vs. created any kind of truly new ethical conundrum.

College football was a prime example. After Michigan’s season opener (like I said, I wasn’t ethically perfect either), I didn’t watch any games this year. I couldn’t get past the fact that schools and conferences were allowing games and practices (with travel!), when there was so much COVID on the campus community that all other students were on lockdown. The risk to college students is certainly lower due to age, but there were plenty of well-known cases of athletes developing heart issues in connection with COVID. It just seemed so obviously and egregiously wrong.

How could we be so callous as to let the lucrative revenues of college football (which fund most other sports on campus at major universities, as well as other non-athletic programs) trump the well-being of the players, and worse, their education? Especially when the players don’t see a penny from the money made off of their bodies while in college, and most never will!

The above could have been written in 2019, 2018, 2017, or any year since we’ve known the effects of CTE, or since the modern college athletics apparatus hijacked educational systems.

Another example was the reaction to the unrest over police brutality, and the overdue “reckoning” over historical injustice. Some of the least radical actions implored of white people were simply to read more books by Black authors, watch more movies about Black stories, and go out of our way to support more Black-owned businesses and causes. But it was in one of those books I read that the hollowness of such actions “to correct” was laid bare in all its naked, virtue-signaling vanity.

“Herein lies the tragedy of the age: not that men are poor, — all men know something of poverty; not that men are wicked, — who is good? not that men are ignorant, — what is Truth? Nay, but that men know so little of men.” — The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. DuBois

The reason to do these things isn’t to correct for some past deficit (though in many cases, that’s separately important). It’s because reading white male authors teaches you only of white men (be it 2020 or 1903).

Assorted other reflections

  • Getting through 2020 was about survival. I wish I read more. I wish I exercised more. I wish I did more self-education. But contrary to what the rah-rah crushing-it-preneur Twitterati would have you believe, it’s okay that you didn’t make a science breakthrough or write a great work this year. We were stressed out, anxious, and depressed — and at least in my case, cut off from most of the things that make us feel inspired in the first place. That’s hardly a recipe for great work. If you got through this year without a persisting mental health issue, drinking problem, or long-term health condition, you won at 2020.
  • Anyone can do anything for a year. I’ve always claimed that you can get through just about anything (within reason) for a year — living in a shitty city, working at a shitty job, etc. Under a year and you can always call it temporary; more than a year and it’s a phase of life. It looks like we’re headed for exactly one year of things being consistently shit before they start getting really materially better. We made it! Go us!
  • “Everyone needs a frame of reference.” This was one of the “dad-isms” I grew up with. I moved to the Tampa Bay area in 10th grade, which is (in my opinion, at least) one of the worst ages in your life to move. Not only did I have to make new friends in a place and a time of life where social circles were already firmly established, but I was additionally always “the Jewish kid.” For this and many other reasons, I just plain hated living there, and I spent the better part of 3 years studying to ensure my escape. That move always served as a frame of reference — I was never worried about moving somewhere new because anywhere I’d choose was never going to be that bad, if for no other reason than I had chosen it. 2020 is going to be a pretty great frame of reference. That crazy move or risky career switch couldn’t possibly be worse than this shit.
  • Actively curating my information diet was as impactful as my food diet. I entered the year leaning heavily on the New York Times and NPR for news. I knew very avidly what was happening in one part of the world, through one slant — which you can hardly call “informed,” and certainly had very little personal benefit in terms of the marginal value of the 15th article of the week about Trump’s inanity. This year, I jettisoned that in favor of subscribing to Apple News and following a much more diverse mix of outlets, as well as started to diversify my Twitter feed away from the tech bro dominance it had accumulated. I can’t say I’ve solved the problem of information siloing, but it has definitely been an across-the-board improvement.
  • The Facebook app has ceased to have any value for me. Zero. Zilch. None. I still log in occasionally on the website (and find some value in that as a telephone book), but I finally made the call to delete the app when they introduced the News tab and I found myself tapping it even though I knew better. God, is there a single company to trust less with curating your information diet? If you want to see what your friends are up to, use Instagram — its saving grace is that you can’t share links, so it’s harder to share opinions. If you want to expand your firehose of interesting things to read or watch, follow smart and/or funny people on Twitter—its saving grace is breaking the link between “people who I happen to have met” and “people whose opinions I am subjected to.” Compared to other options, Facebook does a worse job of keeping me informed about my friend’s lives, a worse job of keeping me entertained, and a catastrophically awful job of keeping me informed about the world. And, just like other social media, it’s making the world more ignorant, polarized, and violent. (Update: it also helped lead to a stupid coup, the natural outcome of 5+ years of people saying something like this would happen!)
  • Your truly meaningful friendships are with the people you actually talked to in 2020. We had only our personalities to lean on this year. There were no shared experiences to distract us from how little we had in common with the people we were sharing it with, and no live music or loud bars to block out dull and insufferable opinions. All we had was talking! It turns out I have more fingers and toes than such friendships, and they need nurturing. Once we can go back to bars and restaurants, I hope virtual hangouts don’t totally go away.
  • Quality doesn’t have to be expensive — and there is so much of it out there! Read good books and essays. Watch good movies. Drink good wine and buy good-quality groceries. Binging on these things cost me much less than going to mediocre restaurants and going to mediocre movies in theaters. Besides, my highest-ROI investment of the year was a pack of socks. Seriously, these socks are the optimal thickness for indoor Michigan winter days, and by far the best $20 I’ve spent as an adult.

Bringing spatial computing to everyday life @Occipital. Prior: co-founder @Fetchnotes, VP @Benzinga, and chief opinionator @michigandaily. Go Blue!

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