I resolved to close out 2020 the same way I started it: with a polar plunge in Barton Springs.
I was hellbent on letting a frigid baptism wash away a year’s worth of accumulated fury.
2020 is never not on brand, though. Her parting gift was to throw lightning on my cold water dreams. And though I held on to hope long past reason, I did, finally, concede. I know better than to tempt fate in a 2020 Texas thunderstorm.
It’s a dream deferred, not destroyed.
All those atmospherics gave me space to wrestle with yet another small hope dashed. Why did I dare hope I could do this one, tiny, thing? And what solace, exactly, does hope offer us in these times?
As it turns out, hope itself is so infused with 2020 energy I almost don’t want to taint this tender new year with it.
I. WHAT IS HOPE, ANYWAY?
We’re conditioned to think of hope as a good. Hope is aspirational and benevolent. It’s non-denominational and non-partisan. We garland its letters for holiday cards and we slap it on posters to mobilize the youth vote.
It’s mythologized as the original consolation prize for a world of woes and we cradle it, share it, invoke it.
And yet. We can also look at hope as an empty wish to fill the vacuum of our own powerlessness.
I hope you feel better soon. I hope are together soon. I hope they do the right thing.
It’s ‘thoughts and prayers’ for both sides of the gun control debate. But just like the empty promises that follow the mass murders of children and churchgoers alike, those platitudes force positivity; they forestall action.
The Greek word for hope (ἐλπίς) likewise masks violence with empty redirects. Greek scholars (to whom I offer my apologies for oversimplifying their work*) generally read the word in one of four ways:
👍 Hope #1: Hope was preserved for the comfort of humans.
Phew. We know this hope. This one gets all the stage time in high school classrooms and chain jewelry store branding.
🙈 Hope #2: Humanity’s blind hope is responsible for the release of all the other evils into the world.
Well, shit. Your neighbor’s gold-foil holiday card just got a lot more sinister.
😩 Hope #3: Humans were meant to be sheltered from the cruel illusion of hope, because our conditions are objectively desperate.
Yep, yep, yep. This one really stuck the landing in 2020.
🦹♂️ Hope #4: Hope is so evil that Zeus, while determined to punish humans, could not in the end, unleash hope upon them too.
Thanks, I guess?
I’m no statistician (or classical scholar) but even I know 75% of those options are BAD NEWS BEARS.**
It almost makes me want to put on my pajamas and hide in my home.
Okay, I am actually hibernating, but I won’t let scholars or stats drag me down. Not yet.
Because of the children.
II. WHAT TEENAGERS CAN TEACH US ABOUT HOPE
There’s a scene in “Boys State,” a documentary about teenagers creating a representative democracy from scratch in the space of the week, in which an elected official faces calls for impeachment. The agitating comes from a rowdy bunch of 17-year olds who make a ruckus in an auditorium and create an impeachment-centered Instagram page.
The noise and cyberbullying burrow deep into the psychological and political calculations of our adolescent heroes, but when it comes time to vote, there are only 12 ayes in a crowd of 400 nays.
The documentary is excellent, terrifying, and worth watching for that scene alone.
Right now, hope sure feels like a shallow remedy. It’s a pat wish, a whimper into the void. It crumbles under the long tail consequences of the attention economy and cynical nihilism.
And yet. While a noisy number flex their freedoms to, I can’t help but hold out Hope #1 (the good one), that so many more of us are quietly masking up, staying the fuck home, and keeping an eye on the long view.
For the children. For grandmas. For the people who keep your steak affordable.
III. FLOW FOLLOWS FOCUS
Driving through a small town in central Texas last weekend, I witnessed a man painting a “Liberals Suck” mural on the wall of his house. He gave me occasion to log my first regret of the year—that I didn’t stop for a picture—and to ruminate on what would inspire me to give something I hated so much free rent in my personal environment.
Under what circumstances would I be so moved to paint “bananas are gross” or “vanity license plates are stupid” on the street-facing wall of my home?
I came up short. I’d much rather dedicate that space to something I loved.
That said, I’ve been less judicious about what gets free rent inside my head. I’ve let myself get consumed by the sound and the fury, the splintering of truth.
That changes, now. We are the sum of the people we spend the most time with and we are no doubt also the sum of the ideas we obsess over.
In 2021, I choose to shift away from the siren calls of hope, of bullies both cyber and embodied, of noise that signifies nothing.
“I am not optimistic or pessimistic. I am determined.”
May this be the year of action instead of attitude.
IV. SPEAKING OF CYBERBULLYING
📚 Read this
If you’ve been wondering why J.K. Rowling came out with TERF guns blazing a few years back, this article has some answers. How SoulCycle lost its soul. I have watched this several times and I have come to the inevitable conclusion that this is sorcery at work. More like this, please. Hobo codes, or the pictographic language of train-hopping nomads. Here’s a mini review of my favorite book I read in 2020.
Here’s the link to “Boys State” again. I really, really want to see “Promising Young Woman,” but cannot fathom why it’s only in theaters. Who is going to theaters right now? I also tried to see “Nomadland” but the streaming event was sold out by the time I learned about it. But seriously, what is the purpose of manufactured scarcity in times like these?
🎧 Listen to this
The pettiest episode of “Shiny Objects” yet: all about pet peeves, in which I complain about people complaining. Sorry not sorry. Inspired by this episode of “That’s Not On Brand,” because it is strangely cathartic and validating to hear about other people’s pet peeves.
🤓 Join me in appropriating this Swedish word
Ketchupeffekt is used to describe a situation or event where not much happens for a long time, and then a lot happens at once. The significance of ketchup will be clear to anyone who has ever tried to pour the sauce from a glass bottle—usually it takes several seconds before any comes out, and then you get a huge amount.
✍️ Logging my prediction for posterity
On January 20, Trump will host an alternative inauguration for himself. He will declare a new country (Trump USA? Trump America?) and sell citizenship. Many will pay. He will sell supplies for building a wall around your home or neighborhood—whatever property can be designated as belonging to Trump America—to keep ‘foreigners’ out. Many will pay. He will charge them taxes. Many will pay.
Many, believing themselves citizens of a new nation, will not pay the IRS. The IRS will find them, and they will pay.
Trump will be golfing somewhere outside the walls.
* Here I paraphrase and mangle the work of W.J. Verdenius.
**Further proof of my scholarly diletantism: I use the reference “bad news bears” all the time and I have never seen the movie nor understand the context.