K Paoletter 21: Not So Fast

Despite its recency, my memories of 2010 are decidedly vague. I spent the first months of the year in the rambling house I lived in at Tufts, mostly in my crawlway of a room where I lay in bed watching hour after hour of cross-country skiing at the Vancouver Olympics, and then, some time later, live-streamed footage of crude oil billowing into the Gulf of Mexico during the Deepwater Horizon disaster. From my perspective, every event that year—the eruption of an Icelandic volcano that stranded flights in Europe, the catastrophic earthquake in Haiti, the crew of Chilean miners trapped for months beneath the Atacama Desert—took place amid a haze of economic depredation, this being, of course, the absolute depths of the Great Recession. Nearly one out of every ten workers were unemployed and, at least in Boston, most storefronts on Newbury Street and in Davis Square had windows made of plywood.

It was a year of deepest malaise, its details fuzzy compared to the crisp images I can recall of standing on the National Mall for hours in the freezing cold to witness Barack Obama’s inauguration a year earlier, or observing the day-to-day accumulation of tents in the Financial District’s Dewey Square a year later. Twenty-ten was no less eventful than any other year, yet I have little recollection of the sort of happenings I typically attend to. The Republican romp in the Midterms? No idea what I was doing while I watched that unfold. The leak of U.S. intelligence communications about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? Totally forgot that happened in 2010 until just now, when I was scanning through the year’s Wikipedia entry. 

Obviously my experience of 2010 is particular to me— for those whose lives intersected with the year’s events directly (even in as benign a fashion as being stranded in Amsterdam for an extra week), I’m sure they seem less gauzy in retrospect. My point is that, after the past twelve month’s succession of flash-bulb moments of bona fide history taking place, I’d wager that whatever comes next will be a bit… less. Not lacking in events, necessarily. But it’s difficult to imagine a 2021 that sticks in our collective memory quite like the year we are in the process of exiting surely will. 

Over the weekend, the New York Times published its annual package of the year’s most arresting photographs, this time with an introduction from editor Dean Baquet. “Certain years are so eventful they are regarded as pivotal in history,” Baquet writes, “years where wars and slavery ended and deep generational fissures burst into the open.” He lists the usual suspects: 1865, 1945, 1968. “The year 2020 will surely join the list.” On social media, this sort of sober occasion-marking has taken the form of near constant grousing about the “worst year ever,” as exemplified by the TikTok hit “F2020,” a track whose blunt lyrics (“Yo, lowkey fuck 2020. I don’t know about everybody else, but I think I am kinda done”) sound a lot catchier than they look in print. 

Now, of course, 2020 is almost over, and the last six weeks have brought a wave of new hope. Donald Trump is a month away from slinking off to Palm Beach. Vaccines are already being deployed to healthcare workers and the most vulnerable of us, and it seems likely they’ll be widely available by the spring. Even as the United States is routinely setting daily records of infections and deaths, it no longer seems fantastical to imagine a post-covid America, one presided over by an inoffensive technocrat. Restoration peaks over the horizon. 

Perhaps. But let’s remember that events as seismic as 2020’s have aftershocks. Some eight million people have been thrust into poverty since this summer; meanwhile, closures of schools and daycares have forced hundreds of thousands of women out of the workforce, a massive setback for the nation’s progress toward gender parity in both employment and childcare. And while the United States, Europe, and East Asia all seem poised to squash the coronavirus over the course of the next twelve months, the developing world probably won’t see widespread access to a vaccine until at least 2022. Zooming even further out, the massive decline in car commuting that lockdowns around the world precipitated this spring did little to diminish estimates for the amount of carbon dioxide that will be added to the atmosphere in the coming years, further dimming the prospects that even the modest goals of the Paris Climate Agreement will ever be reached. Drinking water grows ever more scarce, wildfires more prevalent, flooding more commonplace. 

History rushes on, and I find myself anxious that the near future looks a lot like 2010. However chaotic and crushing, the past year has demanded continuous attention. The experience has been tiring— dreadfully, dreadfully tiring. It’s natural to look forward to a break, to zoning out for a bit. Just don’t mistake whatever narcotized reprieve awaits on the other side as some lasting triumph.

A few big pieces to share with you this month: The first is an essay for The Believer, in which I attempt to describe the particular brand of American literature that lurks in the dusty backrooms of the City Southwest. The piece is the result of eighteen months of reading as many books about urban life in the desert as I could get my hands on, and I’m rather proud of it. (My essay was also adapted into an audio segment on the debut episode of the Black Mountain Radio Hour, which you can find in podcast form right here.) Aside from that, I reported a feature for the November issue of Boston about the Museum of Fine Arts’ attempts to tackle the twin challenges of reopening amid the pandemic and addressing the racist treatment too many Black and brown patrons have experienced in recent years. Right before the election, n+1 asked me to write about the conservative campaign to manufacture a cloud of conspiracy around every prominent Democratic politician. Lastly, my latest book review for The Nation is of Roberto Lovato’s Unforgetting, a fascinating memoir about the cycles of violence that have plagued El Salvador for a hundred years that doubles as a sort of journalistic Bildungsroman. 

To stave off my despair at the onset of winter, I’ve spent the past few weeks throwing together a playlist of songs that came out in 2020 that I liked. It’s a little bit all over the place— both music-wise and geographically— but I think it makes for some overall pleasant pre-holiday listening. Hope you enjoy!

Some big news to close out 2020! My wife (Theresa Sullivan, if you’re not acquainted) recently launched a business: Little Flame Creative. She’s offering web copywriting for creative and purpose-full companies, and she’d love to work with you. If you’re looking to revamp your website, drop her a line. Just copy curious? Sign up for her wonderful three-day copywriting course, which is (adorably) named “Copy Sparks.” 

That’s all for now. Thanks, as always, for reading and subscribing. You can find me at my website, or scattering salt on the stoop ahead of this evening’s nor’easter. 

Your pal,


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s