Anyone who has ever lived with a young cat has had an experience something like this: you’re sitting on your couch, your home peaceful and quiet, when all of a sudden, with a sound like unzipping velcro, or tearing burlap, a furry demon ricochets through the space, bouncing off the furniture, the walls, and your body, before disappearing into another room. You’re left stunned, your heart racing, and you check yourself over for bloody wounds or missing body parts. “What the hell…?”
In some ways that’s how I think back on 2020, though the year isn’t an adorable, if insane, cat. Looking back on this year I can only think to myself, “what the fuck was that?”
It’s more than just this year, though, it’s also the last four years. The Trump years. 2016 was the year he went from obscurity and ridicule, to first winning the GOP nomination, and then winning the electoral college. In 2017 he was sworn in and promptly started causing scandals and instituting horrendous policies. More of the same followed in 2018 and 2019.
Let me stop me there: I don’t want to spend a bunch of time writing about Donald Trump. I don’t want to rehash his presidency. Suffice it to say that his one term in office has been a shit show and a dumpster fire and whatever other metaphoric label you want to slap on it. Done.
No, I need to spend some time thinking about 2020. Of course Trump plays a big part in the events of this year, so we can’t get away from him entirely. Another thing I don’t want to do is to turn this into something where I go out on the internet, looking for news headlines from this year, just to remind myself of what has gone on. If I can’t remember it then it’s not worth bending my mind to at this point in time. What I really want to do with this is to focus on the things that have had the greatest emotional effect on me. I think that’s a good project for here and now.
I feel like I need to start my examination of 2020 in the summer. Not our summer here in Washington, though, but summertime in Australia. It’s hard to believe that the devastating wild fires that caused such destruction in Australia were this year, rather than the six years they feel like. Nonetheless…
I should pause to make note of something. Though it isn’t something I’ve written about much here, environmental topics, including climate change, are my number one concern in any discussion of politics, news, or crises, or matters of world import. I realize that I’ve written far more about social justice issues, especially the last couple of years, but the environment tops any list of issues and concerns for me. Nothing else even comes close.
Back to Australia.
Any time news cycles are dominated by stories of environmental calamity a feel like my heart is being torn out of my chest in the most excruciatingly painful way possible. I can face down any other thing in the news with a degree of calm and rationality that let’s me process and respond to the news without my emotions taking over, but this simply isn’t possible for me with the environment. On that topic I am all emotion, and when that story is of massive destruction and terrible loss of life and habitat I hurt so badly.
Even thinking about what I have to say right now is making my eyes tear up and my mind shy away, so I’m going to take a break and pick this up again later.
Picking back up, twelve hours later…
When stories of the massive fires burning across Australia began to fill my news feed I was concerned and saddened. As more and more details came out my mood grew blacker. What really ended me, though, was one story, and a specific phrase: “the koalas screamed as they burned to death.” Those words have haunted me for months. At the time when I first heard them I fell into a depression that lasted several days. I was barely able to function, though I believe I hid it from my friends and coworkers. I can’t remember for sure, but I think that, after several days of barely making it through work, I probably called out for a couple of days, unable to deal.
Then, eight months later, we are faced with similar stories from across the American west, specifically in California, Oregon, and Washington, when our own, climate-driven fires broke out. Besides the stories of devastation we were also living with air that was practically toxic and fear for our health and safety. As someone for whom breathing has always been an iffy subject this was another period of fear and depression.
More strongly than I believe anything else, I believe that there is no issue more important facing us than the harm we are doing to our natural environment. Yes, there is systemic racism in law enforcement and energized domestic terror groups. Yes, there is a global pandemic that has been criminally mismanaged here at home. Yes, our national and global economy is suffering and our people suffering worse. Yes, there is unrest around the world and a refugee crisis that isn’t getting better and will only get worse. No, I don’t believe any of those things is anywhere near as critical as climate change, pollution, habitat loss, and all the other things that make up the environmental issues that most people and governments allow themselves not to think about.
Strip everything else away and climate change is the driving force behind the migration crisis that has rocked the world for the first twenty years of the 21st century. Ask military planners and they’ll tell you that climate change is at the heart of their global threat assessments. Economic inequality? Climate change is disproportionately effecting the poor, the disadvantaged, and minority communities. Health care? Climate change is worsening a variety of illnesses as well as access to good care around the world. Economies? Climate change is destroying some fields and the ones that could grow to address it are being fought against by the gigantic industries that have created the climate crisis.
I really feel like I could go on and on about this tropic, getting more emotional as I do. Perhaps I should, in some other essay, but for now I want to continue examining this year that is nearly completed.
It’s interesting that the disease which has rocked societies around the globe this year, and will continue to do so into next year, is named for last year. Maybe that’s not that interesting to other people, but it’s something I always think about. It’s a reminder that this singular disease isn’t so singular after all, it’s one in a whole family of coronaviruses, and there’s absolutely no reason to think that there won’t be a COVID-21 or -22 or -23. As we continue the human expansion that has driven habitat loss, species extinction, and climate change, we can expect new diseases and new versions of old ones to rear their heads. Oh, and vaccine skeptics aren’t going to help anything, here, either.
I honestly can’t remember when I first heard about coronavirus. Or was it COVID-19? Two words? An acronym? With or without the hyphenate? Should we be using a definite article? I don’t recall thinking about it in regards to last year’s winter holidays or during the first month of the new year, so I’m going to guess that it really started appearing in the news some time during late January. While its impact in the news grew throughout February I don’t think that it was until March that we really started to realize how big a deal this was going to be. March is when it shut us down.
COVID and Apple
The year between my fourteenth and fifteenth anniversaries with Apple (and I’m now two months into the year that will take me to sixteen) has been a year of confusion, uncertainty, and unheralded change due to this virus and the pandemic we brought on ourselves. Never in all my time with Apple had we closed our doors to our customers because of something like this. Sure, my store has been closed for a couple weeks here and there for remodels and the like, but we’ve always continued working behind the scenes and it’s never been or more than two weeks. Alderwood, the store to our north, was shut down for months during a remodel, but while that happened all of their folks were working at other stores. But this year? This year we were closed.
When we shut our doors and sent our teams home in mid-March we expected it to last for a few weeks, but probably not as long as a month. I think most of us expected it to be basically a vacation before coming back to business as usual.
I should stop right here and put into writing something that I’ve said over and over again this year: I am beyond lucky to work for a company that had the financial wherewithal to keep each and every one of us fully employed during this time. Despite everything else that has gone on this year I have never had to worry that I would be laid off or would have to fear being made homeless. I know this is not the case for millions of people in America. For that I am so grateful to this company. They didn’t have to do what they did, as many other companies proved, but my bosses decided to do the right thing—the humane thing, the responsible thing—and they took care of us.
Anyway, weeks turned into a month, and that month turned into several. We started looking at ways to work from home. We planned and hosted a variety of video conferencing meetings, trainings, and events for one another. I myself led several photography sessions, one on Pages, and a couple related to wilderness emergency preparedness.
During this time we also lost a coworker, suddenly and unexpectedly. I don’t know whether his death was related to COVID or if it was the result of other health issues I know he struggled with. That was a shock to all of us.
Walking through COVID
Outside of work, these months at home became a time of exploring my neighborhood. Not that I expected that to be the case as we launched into staying at home. No! I thought I was going to get out and do a ton of hiking. Then I experienced a trail in late March and saw how crowded it was, and I read online reports of the same, and then the land managers started shutting down the trailheads, and responsible agencies and organizations cautioned us against leaving our neighborhoods to minimize spread between communities. So I found myself with a lot of time on my hand and began walking out my door and wandering about. Before long I started looking at maps and planning new routes to take me places I hadn’t been. Soon my walks were getting longer and longer, equalling and besting what I might do in a day of hiking (albeit at lower elevation and with less elevation gain). Eventually I began printing out my routes and taped them together to create a wall-map over five feet tall, showing all the places I had been. I think, in those several months, I walked nearly 300 miles around my city and adjoining ones. I saw places I had never seen before, which was pretty darn cool.
And back to Apple
Eventually we started reopening the store. This began slowly with sort of a curbside model, but then we shut back down again when something else happened (more on this in the next chapter). When we reopened again we did so a bit more fully and invited customers through our doors once more. I didn’t experience these early phases, though, because the limited staff they needed was mostly pulled from other teams, and, they had the Creatives preparing to lead our annual summer camp, though not in person.
We spent a decent bit of the latter part of June, into early July, preparing to lead camp in a video conferenced form, and then did so for about three weeks in July. It was an interesting experience and was heralded by some as a great success, though I thought it was a pretty big miss and I hope we don’t do it that way again.
Following camp we were back into the store more and more, continuing to interact with our customers in some normal and some not so normal ways. Through all of us, just as it was the first service to be shut down, Today at Apple has been nonexistent. So instead of leading learning sessions, I’ve spent nearly all of my time for the last five months operating as what we used to call Concierge and more recently have named On Point. The few breaks from this have been spent as an express sales person and helping customers to pick up their online orders.
I know this change to what my role does has angered and saddened other members of my team. I certainly don’t like it, but I maintain a certain degree of phlegmatism about it. It’s not hard to understand why—from Cupertino’s point of view—our service is the easiest one to do without during this time. I don’t completely agree with it, nor do I think good decisions have been made about it all along the way, but I can understand it. I’m also good at being patient and waiting to see what comes next while keeping myself occupied.
The most recent and current change to how we operate as a store has been a reduction in our services to align with the worsening cases of COVID both in our state and around the country. We have gone into what we call an express model, which means that there’s no browsing, no extended sales interactions, and no extended support interactions. Sales customers come in to pick up their online orders or do returns and exchanges only, and are served at ad hoc “bank teller” windows from behind plexiglas barriers. Support customers are served the same way and are principally dropping off and picking up.
COVID at large
Here’s where I need to get political about something that NEVER SHOULD HAVE BEEN POLITICIZED. Maybe it was inevitable that a global pandemic was always going to be a political issue considering how partisan we’ve become. I didn’t believe that to be the case as it was beginning to unfold and I’d like to believe that—under a different sort of president—it needn’t be so again. Nonetheless, I believe that the pandemic in the United States was made immeasurably worse because of the lack of leadership from Donald Trump.
No, wait, I take back that “immeasurably”. As of this moment the CDC is reporting that there have been 332,246 American deaths attributable to this virus. That’s part of the 19,055,869 reported cases of it. So it turns out it is possible to measure how badly our response to COVID has been managed, and how a virus became a pandemic.
Honestly, thinking about this just makes my head pound and makes me want to yell and curse. When faced with a disease that has the potential to become a pandemic the least controversial and most logical thing to do should be to pay attention to what scientists and doctors are telling us. But can we manage to do that here? No, of course not. At the beginning of all of this we needed a president and a federal government willing to take swift and decisive action. Sure, there were some hard calls to make, but if everyone in our government could have come together to make those calls then I believe this could all have been averted.
Instead we got Trump being Trump, and republican officials at every level of government willing to follow him off the cliff, screaming slogans at the tops of their lungs, virus-laden spittle flying.
So days turn into weeks and weeks into months, and now we aren’t that many months away from this becoming an entire year of COVID-19. I feel confident in saying that there isn’t a single person in America who hasn’t had their life changed in some fashion by this pandemic, some of us more and some of us less. And you know what? It didn’t need to be this way.
When we’d had enough
Three names that should be pretty, damn familiar to anyone in America, here at the end of 2020. But how about these?
Kenneth Chamberlain Sr.
Willie Ray Banks
Sgt. James Brown
Wayne A. Jones
Victor White III
Jerry Dwight Brown
John Crawford III
Jay Anderson Jr.
Donnell Thompson Jr.
Danny Ray Thomas
Antwon Rose Jr.
Charles Roundtree Jr.
Emantic Bradford Jr.
Jaquyn O’Neill Light
Walter Wallace Jr.
Casey Goodson Jr.
Are a couple of them familiar to you? These are the names of black men and women killed by law enforcement officers, or who died while in the custody of law enforcement officers and agencies, over the course of the last ten years. It’s quite a list, isn’t it? Sadly it’s probably no where near complete. Take these names and consider them a fraction—a down payment—of the toll the American “justice” system exacts on our black citizens. Let’s look at a few more names.
Calvin Horton Jr.
These names, these black men and women, were not killed by the police, but they were all killed, likely because of their race, and usually by white Americans who felt threatened by their existence.
Yeah, this has been going on a long time. Ooh, big revelation, right? No, not at all. America is and always has been a racist nation. In fact we are a nation where our racism is systemic and systematic.
If you’ve been paying attention at all you’ve heard those two, “sys-“ words used to describe racism in America, but you may not know what they mean, precisely. Most likely you’ve heard wordy and pretentious people (like me) say that America has a problem with “systemic and systematic racism”. It sounds like the kind of thing we like to write and say when we’re showing off our vocabulary, but they really do mean different things. Take a look.
systemic • adj.
• of, relating to, or common to a system; fundamental to a predominant social, economic, or political practice
systematic • adj.
1. relating to or consisting of a system
2. presented or formulated as a coherent body of ideas or principles
3. methodical in procedure or plan
4. marked by thoroughness and regularity
So while the two concepts are closely related, systemic—in this context—tells us that racism is common, even fundamental to the American system, while systemic speaks to the thoroughness, planned, and implemented nature of racism to our system. Both of these things are, sadly, true.
But this thing I’m writing right now isn’t about the history of racism in the American justice system, it’s a look at 2020 and I’m trying to not veer too badly off course.
Most of the people whose names I listed above died with little, widespread acknowledgement. So what was so different about Breonna Taylor and especially George Floyd? What caught our attention as a nation when he was murdered? What shook us out of our complacency? What made so many people take to the streets in anger and sadness?
There are lots of theories about it and I suspect that most of them contain some measure of truth. The one that I think is particularly relevant to this moment in time relates back to COVID-19. When George Floyd was murdered many of us were sitting at home, worried about our jobs, worried about our loved ones, and worried about ourselves. We were sitting at home with little better to do then stare at revolving screens of internet information. Into this mix was suddenly thrust a video of a black man being murdered by seemingly emotionless white cop, calling out that he couldn’t breathe, and finally crying out for his mother. We watched it, we lived with it, and something about it broke us open.
So here we were, dealing with one crisis, when all of a sudden many of us had our eyes opened to another one. Sadly this crisis wasn’t a new one, no matter how much it seemed so to the bulk of the American populous. For me and my coworkers, sitting in our homes, we were witnesses to and participants in the kind of awakening being experienced by people all across the country.
Apple reacted like a lot of big companies on the more progressive end of the spectrum, by rolling out a series of initiatives designed to promote conversation and ultimately some form of positive change. We had lots of Webex meetings to give people space to talk and share and process. After a while the company started to introduce the idea of “diversity networks” to give people in different groups—women, black Americans, LGBTQIA+, etc.—as well as “allies” a place to talk and be heard. Hey, you can even get a t-shirt for the Black @ Apple group! Show your support! We’ll take group photos on Fridays!
In the midst of May and June I made a prediction that I’m sad to say has born out. I told our leadership, on one of these calls, that I believed we would lose the progress we were making when businesses started reopening because our focus would shift. I also warned, as I have so often warned, that dialog and performative activism is a good start, but it isn’t enough. By the end of the year I hadn’t seen a lot in the way of concrete and meaningful action, but we’ll see what 2021 brings.
The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.
As 2020 entered the scene we were in the midst of the impeachment of Donald Trump. His first impeachment, though we wouldn’t know that until the year had already ended. The two phases of impeachment are often misunderstood, so it’s important to be specific in saying that Donald Trump was impeached by the House of Representatives, but his impeachment did not lead to a conviction in the Senate. In this, split decision, he joined Andrew Johnson (February 24, 1868) and Bill Clinton (December 19, 1998).
Coming off successfully resisting being removed from office and with the economy in good shape (really just the stock market because fuck you if you’re not a wealthy investor) it looked entirely likely that Trump was headed to a second term. The Democratic Party selected Joe Biden in the early months of the year, on the theory that an old white guy was what we needed to defeat an old white guy. However Biden’s nomination was not assured until the pandemic had already begun, and that changed the equation significantly.
I’ve been deeply immersing myself in politics and Presidential politics since the election of 2000 (I was a registered voter in 1996, but since I was a college sophomore I didn’t pay a lot of attention to Bill Clinton’s second election). There are certain conventions of campaigning for the office that every presidential contender has followed. Even Trump did so—more or less—in 2016. Not in 2020, though. The pandemic changed all of that. Biden essentially ran his campaign from his home, forgoing nearly all of the activities that normally accompany seeking the office. And then there were the debates between Biden and Trump…
Whether this will go down in history as the dirtiest campaign in history is something that will debated. On the one hand Trump got impeached (the first time) because of his trying to leverage the government of Ukraine against Biden! On the other hand Biden never stopped to anything worse than describing the truth of Trump in deservedly unflattering terms.
None of us really wanted to believe that Trump could win reelection, no matter who our candidate was, but a clear-headed reading of the electorate and the realities of politics meant that we all knew he could do so. Add in the complications of voting in the midst of a pandemic and you had a recipe for chaos, electoral shenanigans, uncertainty, and legal challenges. And, lo and behold, we got all of those things!
Election night was a tense affair. Watching states come in, seeing which ones broke the way we expected and which ones didn’t, tallying them all up on maps and tables… And then, at the same time, watching the Senate and House results to see what kind of congress the next president would have to work with. And then, as expected and feared, election night turned into election week as we waited for some of the most tightly contested results to come in. Finally the last states were called and we knew, beyond most shadows of most doubts that Joseph R. Biden would be the 46th President of the United States.
Of course that only kicked off a virtual deluge of garbage law suits from the Trump campaign, none of which ever stood a chance of overturning the results, but it was hard not to be afraid. After all, this was the man who had snatched victory from the jaws of certain defeat four years earlier. This was the man who had spent four years packing the federal judiciary with conservative jurists, including a third Supreme Court Justice just weeks before. This was the man who had proven to hold an unholy sway over congressional Republicans despite all of the ways in which he was antithetical to their stated beliefs and aims.
Ultimately though, and with the steady progress forward of history correcting itself, even if just a little, the last law suits were thrown out, the vote held in the Electoral College, the state results certified, and those results counted by congress. And tomorrow—January 20th, 2021—we will witness Biden’s inauguration.
Yeah, it’s a few weeks into 2021 as I’m writing this, and nearly six weeks since I started writing it. What can I say? There’s been a lot going on and it’s been hard to focus my mind on recapping the year that was 2020.
Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.
There were one or two more topics that I was going to write about here; things of a more personal nature. As the composing of this piece has stretched out, though, I’ve found myself wanting to bring it to an end so that I can look forward into the new year. Introspection is good, and reflecting on where we’ve been is good, but so is training your eyes on the future.
I’ve brought to a conclusion more than one essay with the Winston Churchill quote that sub-titles the end of this one. There is the hope that it embodies. There is also the idea that there is more to come than what has gone before. There is the acknowledgement that, while we can learn from the past, it is the future that we must build better.
So here’s to the year that was 2020! Rest in peace. And here’s to 2021! We’re just getting started.