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We are coming up on the end of 2020. That is nearly impossible to believe. This year has felt like an entire decade.
So much has happened that it feels like having the normal “end of year” lists feels even sillier than it does usually, and it is normally a silly undertaking. I mean, who cares what the 10 best movies are when no one in their right mind would set foot in a theater to watch one?
And yet, because of the extreme nature of 2020, it also feels like we SHOULD do something to recognize the things that have happened this year, to name them and claim them. The things that happen to us make us who we are. This is true individually and collectively. We are the sum of our experiences.
As I thought about how to tackle this challenge, I got a message from Matthew. He was texting me to talk soccer. He is a huge soccer fan, and it is one of the things that has brought us close as he got older and more independent. As we were talking about the latest drama for his beloved Manchester United, I was reminded of soccer tables. There, laid out for all to see, is the list of how each team is doing. It’s wins, losses, and draws.
Wins and losses are complicated things. There are wins that don’t feel like wins. There are some losses that feel almost as good as wins. There are wins that are well earned and wins that feel like a fluke. There are tough losses - what in poker is called a “bad beat” - where everything looks to be going your way until something inexplicable happens to take victories away.
And draws are something else entirely. Not a win, but not a loss. Somewhere in between, like competition purgatory.
I thought that wins, losses, and draws were a good frame with which to look back on 2020. So, for the next three weeks, I will be sharing 3 interconnected 5 Things - 5 Wins, 5 Losses, and 5 Draws.
The 5 Wins are things that were good about 2020. They are wins. People and things that showed us that there is still hope and humanity and that even during ***all this*** that good things still happened. But wins are complicated right? Even big wins come with struggles, and no win is perfect. Nothing is ever one thing. But we will start by looking at the places and people that rose to the occasion in 2020.
The 5 Losses will take a hard look at the stuff that went sideways this year. My god there was a lot. But losses are complex, just like wins. They can point the way to future success, and they can show us what we can do better. It is important to think about our losses and be prepared for the consequences they bring. And. Nothing is one thing. Even in our losses there can be joy.
The 5 Draws will consider those things that were not quite a win, but not quite a loss either. The things that were in the middle. I want us to think about what it means to live with complexity, and for simple answers and definitive solutions to elude us. Because that is often what life is.
This week we will be talking about the 5 Wins. I always like to lead with the good. Plus, when you look at the soccer table, the wins come first.
So, let’s dive in.
One of the guys Matthew went to high school with became a plumber after graduating East. He was on his way to being a plumber before then because he had signed up for a training program his senior year. The company he now works for paid for him to get certified as a plumber in exchange for working for them for a year.
This was a kid that had other, more traditional opportunities. You know, the kind that schools like East generally expect from their students. He could have easily gone to college. When I asked Matt why he didn’t Matt said “Two reasons. 1. He wanted to start making money now, not wait 4 years and be tens of thousands of dollars in debt and 2. He said that when the toilet stops working and the shit backs up, even the smartest doctor at UNC needs to call a plumber.”
Sometimes, the shit must back up for us to be able to see the people who are important.
In 2020, the toilets backed up. All of them. Things stopped working. There is a global health crisis that is accelerating. Our senior most governmental leaders abdicated all responsibility. One effort at stimulus (that disproportionately went to those who least needed it) that disappeared way too quickly. Lockdowns, business closures. All hell broke loose.
And who did we turn to? Nurses. Grocery workers. Delivery drivers. They were the ones who proved to be truly essential.
I have been kind of obsessed with the way teachers responded in 2020. When the year started, it was completely normal. The same as it always is. And then, suddenly, teachers had to change EVERYTHING. Suddenly they had to become online learning experts. They had to learn all new technologies and modalities, had to design completely different lessons and had to do it all without training or even guidance. Administrators had to learn how to lead in a completely different way. And they fucking did it. They made it happen. And no, it’s not perfect, but holy shit. The fact that it even works at all is kind of a fucking miracle.
When the shit backed up, we didn’t go looking for a CEO. We looked plumbers (and nurses and teachers and whoever it is that makes toilet paper). And we found them.
Now, what do we do about it? Do we finally start to show our essential employees respect? And do we season that respect with a little money gravy? Everything goes better with money gravy.
I am just so grateful for all the people that held us together - and keep us together still - during a year when so much fell apart. That’s a win. A big one.
Working From Home
There have been lots of changes over the last year. Some will stick around, some won’t. Most will stick in some ways and not in others. I believe that one of the most transformational long-term changes that will come from this time is the number of individuals and institutions who will begin to see working from home as a meaningful option. I think it will shift the way we view work and place.
There are lots of jobs that are very much tied to place. When you are building or repairing something, you are tied to that thing. And depending on the size and complexity of the thing being built or repaired, you must have a physical space that can hold it. You can’t be an electrician remotely. You can’t lay brick while working from home.
There are even some knowledge work jobs that require physical presence. If you are a research scientist who needs special equipment to conduct experiments, you need a lab. There aren’t a lot of personally owned mass spectrometers or blood centrifuges.
However, increasingly many folks do jobs that don’t necessarily require them to be in a specific place at a specific time. For years, the fear was that having employees work from home would reduce productivity. As is often the case with fear, the thing we say we are afraid of is not what we are afraid of. Companies weren’t scared of a drop in productivity. They feared a loss of control.
Covid took away that control and forced them to accept people working remotely. And there were few dips in productivity. In some cases, it went up. And that was in the middle of a global pandemic, when working parents were doing not just their jobs, but managing remote learning for their kids for their kids as well. If and when the virus stabilizes, who knows what will happen with people’s ability to do their jobs.
While many companies will try to pull people back into the office, not all companies will. And my guess is that many will be more flexible about giving employees the option to work all or part time from home. This will have positive impacts for individuals, and it will have second and third order benefits as well (for example, there will be fewer people commuting and therefore fewer cars on the road).
Barb and I have been working from home for almost a decade now. And I am not sure that we would ever go back to a “traditional” way of working. And while I know some people can’t wait to get back to their office, I think most of us will appreciate the flexibility of knowing that working from home is doable. I am calling it a win.
One of my favorite novels is Middlemarch by Mary Ann Evans (who was writing as George Eliot). It is an exploration of the interconnected dramas of a small English town in the early 1800s. It is by turns large and expansive then small and intimate. And Evans could write. One of the things that makes me love the book is the finale, where she explores where each of her main characters end up. It is a satisfying wrap up of the story. She sticks the landing, which any writer will tell you is a really hard thing to do.
The book ends by pointing out that “the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” I love everything about this.
Most of us tend to equate size with significance. We pay attention to squeaky wheels and big displays. We revere celebrity, and too often fail to ask why we are paying attention to what we are paying attention to. We sometimes miss what is important because we are paying attention to what is loud, and colorful, and new. It’s human nature. We crave novelty.
This happens in politics too. The last 4 years have been dominated by a carnival barker. A con man of no substance, who nonetheless possesses one important genius - he knows how to get, and keep, our attention. Have you gone more than 2 days in a row this year and NOT thought of Donald J. Trump at least once? Me either. Not even close. There have been times when my rage and exhaustion was so great that he was ALL I was capable of thinking about.
And. In the end, he is not the most important person in our country. He is not the most significant person in our politics. For all the attention we give his latest tweet or most recent outrage, the real policy work of the country is done in county commissioner meetings, school board work sessions, and in town hall meeting rooms all around the country.
In a year when the election apparatus of this country was under the most pressure ever - bombarded by misinformation, threats of attack from malicious actors, and operating in the midst of a pandemic - we just had the highest turnout in our history, and the safest, most secure election of all time. And that is DIRECTLY a result of the hard work of tens of thousands of local elected officials, local election managers, and volunteers. All these people who will never be on CNN. Hell, the people in their own community don’t know who they are.
Quick. Who is the chair of your county’s board of elections?
Did you know? Or did you have to Google it?
Here in Orange County, NC it is Jamie Cox. And yeah. I had to Google.
That things are not so ill in the country as they could have been this year (and as ill as they have been it could have been even worse) is owing to people who run our public health systems and our elections. It is because our town councils and city managers went to work every day and held the line. We owe them so much thanks for all that they have done this year.
Their dedication is a huge win for all of us.
New Communication Methods
Barb and I work from home. Her expertise is in online learning, especially online discussions. For several years we operated a consulting firm specializing in online learning design. I knew what Zoom was. We even had an account.
But we have used Zoom more in the last year than we did in all the time before then combined.
One of the things that the pandemic has changed is the way we communicate with one another. We have all had to learn new technologies, and new ways of staying in touch.
This has been challenging at times. It breaks my heart to think about all the families that have had to say goodbye to loved ones over FaceTime. It makes me cringe to think of the fact that people have had first dates on Zoom. And I am frustrated for all the kids who have had to learn a challenging new concept on Google Meet.
At the same time, we have learned lots of new ways to connect, come together, and get things done. We have seen everything from massive protests to small, localized efforts to support one another be organized, managed, and facilitated remotely. We have learned new ways to go to church and work.
And, for real, if I have gone to my last in person meeting of local government, I couldn’t be happier. County commission meetings are a lot more tolerable in my pajamas with a cup of tea.
Our new ways of connecting have opened access and increased transparency. We have made it easier for people to participate in different aspects of our collective lives. No, it is not perfect. Then again, we have only been at this for about 9 months.
My hope is that we will find a way to incorporate the best of the new and old ways of communicating. That we can create space for the intimacy and power of being in shared space AND continue to open access to all by making things available online as well. We can create the best of both worlds in the most important area of all – coming together in community.
That’s a win.
Let’s be real. 2020 has been a hellscape. So many terrible things have happened this year. Global pandemics, increasing impacts from runaway climate change, and the sustained assault on American democracy and basic human decency by the least capable person to ever even pass by the White House, much less live there. This year feels like it has lasted 20. I honestly can barely even remember last December.
Given all that, it feels like it would have definitely been the year for pop culture to take a mulligan. I don’t know that anyone would have blinked if movie studios, show runners, and musicians had taken a look around and said “yeah, I’m good” and waited for 2021. I am glad they didn’t because in the midst of all 2020 had to offer, pop culture actually turned out to be pretty good.
Granted, we couldn’t go to the movies. That didn’t mean that there weren’t lots of good movies released in 2020. Bad Education (HBO), The Old Guard (Netflix), I’m Thinking of Ending Things (Netflix), and Shirley (Hulu) were particular standouts for me. The Social Dilemma (Netflix), Crip Camp (Netflix) and Athlete A (all on Netflix) were all must see documentaries. Plus, we got a new Spike Lee movie (Da 5 Bloods - Netflix). While I miss some aspects of the theater experience, it is not because there is a lack of good content.
2020 saw new music from all-time greats Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen, as well as an exceptionally good album by current superstar Taylor Swift. The long-awaited album by Jay Electronica finally dropped, as well as the latest album by hip hop masters Run The Jewels. Lucinda Williams, The Secret Sister, Steve Earle & The Dukes, Drive-By Truckers and Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit all released top notch Americana albums. And standing above them all was the Fiona Apple masterpiece Fetch the Bolt Cutters, one of the best albums of the 2000s and my pick for best of the year.
TV was an embarrassment of riches in 2020. The Good Lord Bird (Showtime), Mrs. America (Hulu), and I May Destroy You (HBO) were all top-notch dramas. What We Do In The Shadows (Hulu) and the final season of Schitt’s Creek (Netflix) were good for a laugh. The second seasons of The Mandalorian (Disney+) and The Boys (Amazon) have been incredible. And as a lifelong horror fan, The Haunting of Bly Manor (Netflix) and Lovecraft Country (HBO) were both must see TV. In addition to all that, 2020 also brought us Tiger King (Netflix) which carried us all through the early days of lockdown and The Queen’s Gambit (Netflix) which is helping distract us through the fall.
All in all, 2020 showed the enduring power of stories well told to help keep us connected and entertained through even the most challenging of times. I can’t wait to see what kind of art springs from what has been a uniquely difficult year, and I am grateful for all the art that helped keep me sane and grounded this year.
Wins happen. Even in 2020.
As always, thank you for reading. Be well friends. If you are not a yet a subscriber and would like to get the 5 things (and a whole lot of other good stuff) during the week, I can’t encourage you enough to become a subscriber.
See you all soon. Keep pounding the rock.