The Whiplash of Modern Uncertainty
What, exactly, was 2020?
One day in September in the year 2020, I woke up in the dark amidst a scorching night in Berkeley. I was thirsty, really insatiably thirsty. I trudged to the kitchen, eyes half open, economizing every step, knowing the activation of more than a certain threshold of muscles would jolt me out of the precious peace which, under the right conditions, follows the recently awoken.
Everything was quiet and still, and everyone, it seemed, was asleep. It was the middle of the night in the middle of the week in the middle of a year. My grandmother was still alive.
I emptied an entire water flask down my throat, then began filling a second, shooting a cursory glance at the stove clock in the meantime. Abruptly, I shut off the faucet. The clock read: 10:32. AM. Moving just my eyes, I looked outside, and then looked back at the clock. What I saw suddenly warranted risking a wider range of motion; I dipped my head to the height of the nearest window for a more meaningful gaze.
Something still seemed wrong with the clock, but as I observed the outside world I became aware of odd details which had gone unnoticed in my peripheral vision amidst the walk from my bedroom to the kitchen. The world wasn’t exactly brighter than I had originally perceived, but the street below had taken on the distinct quality of charcoal, a dark gray glow which distinguished the light ever so subtly from that of night. The air resembled the fuzziness of a dark piece of paper widely contaminated with lead, as if a young child had decided to, in an act of rage, mash a Ticonderoga pencil into her desk, press her finger into the mess, and smear the atmosphere with the resulting contents. All was still.
I looked back at the clock on the stove. It hadn’t changed. I stood in the kitchen, frozen. A trickle of water continued drip drip dripping out of the sink.
I creeped carefully back to my room seeking something like confirmation. The alarm clock next to my bed: 10:33. I rapped my thumb against my laptop’s spacebar to wake it up. 10:32.
Barefoot and in pajama pants, I tiptoed around the house—I lived with eight other people that year—to see, well, I’m not exactly sure what. It felt like a moment that should be shared. Every door in the house was shut, though. All my friends, I guess, were still asleep.
I thought going outside might change something. Shirtless and barefoot, I descended our carpeted stairs towards the front door wearing just my pajama pants. Halfway down, that little instinctive alarm which activates when you’ve forgetting something, like a watch, started pinging around in my head. I remembered what I’d forgotten. It wasn’t a watch. Straining to shift my hips around, I turned and climbed back up the stairs I had already conquered, fetched the thing from my room, and closed the door behind me. As I walked through the living room, I slipped on a mask.
The first thing I experienced when I stepped outside onto the sidewalk was relief, for though the smoke had completely blotted out the sun’s light, it somehow no longer smelled like smoke, as it had through the first few days after the fires. It was, instead, hanging precipitously above all the houses on the street, draped over the world like a stack of floating carpets. I never understood why that happened. I strained my neck, trying to remember where it was the sun would usually be at this point in the day. The sky offered no clues. Briefly, I considered whether the condition of this new environment marked an improvement over that of the day before. The sun wouldn’t come out, but it seemed as if our lungs could be in better shape. This was the first thought I had in words on that day in September.
So I climbed back up the stairs into my house, still walking on my toes, not thinking about anything conveyable. I went back into my room, making sure again to close the door behind me. I sat on the edge of my bed for a few moments, looking around. I started up, then stopped, then started again to open the blinds. No additional light greeted me; nothing, in fact, about the ambiance of the room changed with the completion of the usually transformative morning act. I returned to the edge of my bed, sat up straight, and stared out the window. It was clearly too late to go back to bed, but it was equally clear that it was too something to just start the day like it was any other. I sat like that on my bed, back perfectly upright, for a very long time. I’m sure I didn’t realize it, but I was still wearing my mask.
I know that I will always remember waking up in the dark that day, at 10:30 in the morning, and thinking that it was night. It’s a difficult vision to lose; black, billowing ash thick enough to suffocate the sun. I never worried about forgetting it, though. In the midst of lives stuffed with mundanity and routine, it is those most distinct and unusual of moments which are bound to leave the greatest impression on the mind.
I do fear, though, that I have already forgotten the feeling—primal, unshakeable, stomach-pitting—that most occupied each cell in my body during those impossibly gray days in the Bay. Of looking outside late in the morning, seeing nothing but darkness, and thinking, really genuinely thinking: will it ever be light during the day again?
Of not being able to count on the sun.
How will we remember 2020? It will be fascinating, as the decades inevitably churn forward, to see how we attempt to answer that question.
Some of us, sensing the moment, tried to do it right away. Before the calendar turned over, an excerpt of Lawrence Wright’s “The Plague Year” ran in the year’s final issue of The New Yorker. Wright’s brilliant document immediately sent me into the thralls of 2020’s merciless drama—the false hope and denial of February, chaos of March, pain and liberation of June. It details, in reported morsels equally juicy and excruciating, the numbing incompetence—Trump administration officials tossing out, months before the declaration of a global pandemic, a 69 page national infectious disease playbook inherited from the previous administration—transposed against the pure brilliance—the formulation of a vaccine began mere days after the virus’ composition had been identified—of humanity during a generation’s most harrowing time. And it recalls, with heart-wrenching empathy, the devastation of those early months—how hospital workers and octogenarians trapped in senior home death traps and anti-mask thirtysomethings posting defiantly on Facebook all fell victim, at a terrifying rate, to those early, erratic days of the virus. One forgets how quickly an entirely new shared vernacular—“superspreader”, “social bubble”, “hygiene theater”—cropped up, almost overnight, in the midst of COVID; how we attempted to create logic amidst the most nonsensical societal shift of our lives.
It is equally remarkable how quickly those terms seem destined to fade away.
Reading “The Plague Year” now is a lesson as much in the fickleness of interpreting the present as it is a demonstration of the dueling heroism and incompetence displayed during a people’s most trying days. The events which began transpiring mere days after the book’s publication necessarily transformed the text, almost instantly, from a secondary into a primary source. This is a development Wright clearly anticipated. Still, even with the acceptance of the necessary disclaimers—times are turbulent, history is mercurial—it is jarring to consider just how many more twists and turns the situation Wright describes had yet to take before arriving in the present, nearly three years after its publication.
Wright’s dominant closing narrative—a detailed description of the race to produce a COVID vaccine, which results in the the miracle of the Moderna shot—today reads like an impressive but woefully overambitious premonition. It is one which was widely held, by CDC as well as armchair experts, from the earliest days of the pandemic: that the development of a vaccine would end it all, stop the spread, get us back to normal.
To say nothing of the vaccine deniers who we could then only see dimly on the horizon, this is, clearly, not how things went down. Vaccines curtailed, drastically, hospitalizations and deaths, but the prevailing 2020 expectation that the vaccine would stop the virus entirely prevented this positive development—a real miracle in itself—from being perceived as such. By late 2021, with mysterious variants rampant, catching the disease for the first or second or third time seemed almost certain, inoculated or not. As of Wright’s writing, the highest the American daily average case count had been was just over 200,000 new cases a day. A year later, with three approved vaccines widely available throughout the U.S. for over half a year, that number reached over 800,000.
But if Wright used the vaccine as a narrative crutch, the rest of us did, too. Early in 2021, when three of my fully vaccinated friends caught COVID within days of each other, a part of myself broke—the part still left in 2020, the one which knew this would all be fixed by science, that we were just a shot away from going back. When people started catching it twice, the logical leaps induced were frightening; if the shot has holes, and catching the thing itself won’t give you immunity…
How would this ever end?
I was wrong to think it would be so easy because in 2020, when we needed to be righter than ever, everyone was wrong. That year, we experienced so many different forms of supposed reality—the truth changed so fast—that it was easier to pick one, cover our ears, and stick with it, future evidence be damned, than it was to submit to the whiplash of modern uncertainty. And the wronger we were, the surer we felt about things, the more we backed into our corners, rejecting everyone else who was wrong in even a slightly different way, building walls around our tribes impermeable to more than just the virus. Who wants to admit that they’re mistaken?
And we were so mistaken. We were wrong about vaccines and we were wrong to hoard toilet paper and we were wrong to stop people from taking runs outdoors. We were wrong to think that no one would vote and we were wrong to let electoral politics break up families—break up families—and we were wrong to assume a new government would be able to stop the virus much more than the old one. We were wrong to ignore intolerance for so long and then we were wrong to not ensure something tangible emerged out of our collective anger and then we were wrong to forget about said intolerance all over again by the end of the year. We were wrong to think that we’d change our habits when this was all over—that we’d make more room for the birds and plants and animals who seemed so unbothered by our whole escapade. That we would work together, finally, to build a starkly better world than the one we had lived in before.
But, in the moment, we were so sure, at one point or another, that we were right about all of this. We became irreversibly immersed in our untrue truths, and the whole thing became impossible to escape because so many of us discounted the possibility which was then too terrifying to confront: that all of it could be false. That none of us knew—knows—anything.
Any attempt—there have been so many, and will be so many more—to assign logic to 2020 must contend with the reality that the year, more than any I can think of, ruthlessly rejected our countless contemporaneous efforts to do so. This essential fact about 2020 must be considered by retrospective accounts. Its shiftiness makes the designation of the year as A Year—2020 is destined to end up as one of those Years, isn’t it, right up there with the last Year, 1968—extraordinarily difficult.
‘68 is ‘68 because a few important things happened, but those things, overwhelmingly, were reflections of the decade that had preceded it. Woodstock and Beggar’s Banquet and Electric Ladyland and The White Album represented the apotheosis of the sonic movements which had been building over the decade. The political violence of that year—MLK was assassinated in April, RFK in June, American cities burned all summer—was the wrenching, predictable endpoint of a decade crammed with domestic atrocity, from the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing to the gunning down of Malcolm X to Bull Connor’s police dogs, incidents which all fueled the passing of real federal legislation, including the Civil and Voting Rights Acts under the bolder auspices of LBJ’s Great Society. 1968 was the 1960s.
Did 2020 summarize anything? Despite what we were told was the greatest mobilization of protestors in the country’s history, the vast uprisings of 2020 resulted in the passing of no federal legislation—nothing. In fact, for most, 2020’s most resounding political takeaway seems to be how flawed the conceits of our demands for justice were in the first place; how we were undisciplined, sloppy, overemotional, unfocused, idealistic. How we just did it for Instagram.
And what of the pandemic, that killer of over a million—over a million!—Americans and disruptor of so many more lives. Do we even want to remember? For three years, we’ve longed openly for a return to, I guess, the golden days of 2019. What does it mean to spend three years wishing that it was four years ago? We’re back, now—in May it became official, I guess—will any of it have meant anything? The bottom dropped out, and it took us three years to sort of scrape ourselves out of some awful collective hole, and now it seems we don’t have any interest in peering back down to see what the hell happened. Many of our brothers and sisters got buried down there, doomed to never make it out. Why worry about them when we have TikTok?
Perhaps this whole business of remembering (or not) is all more ‘68ish than meets the eye. It’s easy to forget, amidst the mythmaking which has carved such a prominent place for the year in our collective history, how unfulfilled many of that era’s promises ultimately proved. How the students calling themselves Marxists who shut down Paris abandoned the streets by the end of the spring to retreat to their parents’ second homes—it was time for summer vacation, after all. How Murakami fell out with the young revolutionaries in Tokyo after they graduated university and became corporate lawyers for Toyota and the hippies fled Haight-Ashbury late every Sunday afternoon—they had to lose the tie-dye to hustle back across the Bay for class. How Marlboros and Cokes and Budweisers kept flying off the shelves, revolution be damned. In 1968, the apotheosis of the counterculture, Richard Nixon stormed through the door. Ronald Reagan was creeping in his shadow. What did they want us to remember?
Moreover, for the majority of people in both 2020 and 1968, did the number of the year mean anything at all? I think often of Jay Caspian Kang’s piece, from early 2021, about the dichotomy in the Bay Area, where I was then living, between the tech workers (and students) who could afford, for dozens of reasons, to work remotely starting in March, and the migrant service workers tucked into green shacks on the side of a dilapidated race track on the outskirts of Berkeley—a community of just under four hundred mostly Latino workers who accounted for over twenty percent of Berkeley’s 2020 COVID cases despite representing a tiny fraction of the city’s total population—who could not. For communities like this, which were, overwhelmingly, the most widespread victims of the disease, what the fuck did the difference in the year make?
It was 2020, but just like 2019 and 1968 and every other year the rest of the world wasn’t mourning, or even pretending to pay any special attention. Postmates was delivering in record time, and its service was “frictionless.” That was a 2020 truth we could all believe in.
At the end of February, in 2020, my college group chat was discussing the virus, something that, at that point, still seemed to be spreading in a different world. In my world, the real one, Elizabeth Warren had just owned Michael Bloomberg in a Democratic debate, even though it seemed like too little, too late, and the Lakers were really good, and I was in Madrid, studying Spanish and learning about French girls, and it was impossible that anything would come of any of this. Didn’t people understand that all they had to do was wash their hands? Hand washing had always made everything ok.
“Eh really not that bad.” I wrote to the group on March 3. “Like what r u gonna do. Wash ur hands and live your life.” One of my friends reacted with a heart emoji.
Then, when hand washing wasn’t enough, I quickly said goodbye to the new friends I had met abroad and waited in a long line in an empty airport to board an airplane. On the flight home I sat next to a woman who told me that if I could hold a deep breath for ten seconds without coughing it meant that I didn’t have COVID. This reassured me. Maybe the other kids wearing masks around me couldn’t hold a deep breath for ten seconds without coughing?
I returned home to my family, except I didn’t really see them much on account of the fact that I stayed in my room for the first week or so that I was home and used the little washroom next to the garage any time I needed to do anything in the bathroom. Then, when it was determined after about ten days that I was in the clear—ten days was still a long time then—I had to help bring in the groceries. But the thing about bringing in the groceries in 2020 was that we had to wash them all before they made it into the house. So, my dad would go to the grocery store and come back with too much food and he would dump it all on the porch and then I would sit on the porch—this was mostly my job, I’m not sure why—and wash, individually, each fruit and vegetable and bag and cereal box which was to enter our home. Mostly I did this with soap and water, but once April came and I started to resent the task I transitioned to performative, grand Klorox wipes of the bags, and assumed everything would be fine. At that point, I don’t think anyone else was really paying attention.
And then at the end of May I watched the George Floyd video next to my mom, and I cried a lot, and though I cried a lot as a child I never cried about anything anymore, and thinking about this made me cry even more, and I sat at the kitchen table and cried and cried. My mom and I could go to protest, it was agreed, but only if we showered before leaving the house (to protect others from our COVID) and immediately upon returning to the house (to kill the COVID the others had given us). We protested all week. Tanks rolling through the Third Street Promenade. Rubber soles crunching over broken glass. Tear gas streaming off Ocean Boulevard. I saw lots of old friends from high school on the streets that week, but I didn’t acknowledge any of them. I wonder if they saw me, too?
We marched through Brentwood and Westwood and then we started marching towards Beverly Hills, but we never made it. Outside a golf course, we were sandwiched by police from the front and back, with riot shields and helmets and tanks, a sea of tanks, right next to what might have been the 14th hole, and then some of the protestors started shouting for all the white people to get to the front of the group. I started sort of sheepishly scooting forward but was interrupted by a policeman who announced on a speaker from behind us that it was after the 1pm curfew, and that this was our last chance to get out before being arrested. All fifty of us, I bet, would have been happy to go home then.
Except that five seconds later the voice announced that we were under arrest, then and there, and then we sat down in the middle of the asphalt, my mom and I and a few dozen young people, and we waited to be called up to be handcuffed, one by one, and the young people were shouting out emergency phone numbers and scrawling ink onto their forearms and suddenly the whole thing felt very, very serious.
I got called up about twenty spots before my mom. I looked back as I did; there wasn’t much to do about anything at that point. My hands were ziptied behind my back and I was led to stand on the side of the road and I couldn’t see my mom and then, a few minutes later, a policeman ziptied me at the bicep to a senior studying film at UCLA. Eventually, I caught a glance of my mom, also cuffed and tied at the bicep to another young person, and we stood on the side of that road for many hours. When the police had taken all our names and Social Security numbers (though I blanked on mine when the officer asked), they cut our ties, one by one, and funneled us out onto Wilshire Boulevard.
My dad picked us up and drove us home from there, my mom and I, and he yelled at me for putting my mom at risk and I yelled at him for not understanding what was at stake, but, mostly, I moped in the back seat of the car, and when I went home I went into my room and turned off my phone. I laid in my bed for a long time. This time, I didn’t cry.
I remember all of these things happening, clearly, but I cannot place them in the correct sequential order the way I remember easily being able to do with events which transpired before 2020. Some days I remember sending the hand washing text to my friends sometime after we started rinsing our produce with soap, but before the protests. On others the protests come first, followed by the vegetable washing, and I don’t think about reprimanding my alarmist friends at all. Things never quite end up in the right order, though. I have a temporal shuffler in my head, and each card is one of a wild assortment of vivid memories, full of incomparable sound and light and color, that has crystallized amidst the madness of that year. At some point, you’d think these moments, if only by random chance, would line up in the correct order. They never do.
This, for me, is 2020’s most nagging symptom. Profound interruption and protracted lull, random spikes of viscous combustion, jutting nonsensically through a thick and eternal charcoal haze. It’s all right there, close enough to grasp, but none of it makes sense like it did before.
Will it ever leave my body?
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