Here we are, at the end of 2020

Reflecting on the privilege of weathering a pandemic year

It’s very strange to think about January 2020, approximately 25,000 years ago.

Back then, I took a plane (remember those?) to LAX, and spent a week in downtown Los Angeles shaking hands (remember that?) and sitting within six feet of other podcasters in small indoor rooms (ahh! I’m hyperventilating just thinking about it) at a podcasting conference. At night, I walked to breweries and huddled up to the bar, striking up conversations with strangers about what their favorite beers on tap were. When I had a break one afternoon, I rented a bike and rode across the city — through downtown, through neighborhoods, along commuter rails and the LA River, all the way to Hermosa Beach down a bike path called the Strand, which goes right down the middle of the sands. I stood in the ocean and ate an açaí bowl from a food truck (LA changes people). I pedaled back to the hotel across town absolutely elated — what a lovely way to see a city. 

I got home to the cold and snow and told Laurie we should plan on traveling more this year. After having a very rough 2019 — spending most of our year at home with a dog struggling with cancer, then mourning him when he died the previous August — maybe getting out of town a bit in 2020 would help us turn a page and move on from our loss.

Lol.

2020 was a hard year for everyone, a trauma that will shape everyone who has lived through it. But we quickly realized how fortunate we were compared to so many that have suffered so much. 2019 sucked, sure, but today, it just feels like we got some extra practice managing stress and pain ahead of the 2020 main event. By the time lockdowns came down and furloughs were announced at the university, we had already re-ordered our finances and planned ahead for catastrophe, a step we took as we tried to right the ship following paying for Bacon’s medical bills over the past year. We felt weirdly prepared. I couldn’t be more thankful for that. Even in traumatic times, we have extraordinary privileges that help us survive. We’ve tried to pay it forward any way we can — by buying local (beer, almost exclusively beer), tipping graciously, and trying — at least when it comes to essential customer service workers — to treat people with grace and patience. 

The big change for us this year — if you ignore the near-collapse of society happening outside our home — was going from two dogs to three — we have the OG Miss Mac, our blind old man Mr. Bones, and now our foster-failure Waffle. Waffle was a rescue from a dog hoarder in Tennessee, where he and his 56 roommates (!) were transported to Wisconsin for re-homing. Initially we were just trying to get him to a new forever family, but Mac just came alive playing with him — she seemed like she’d aged backwards five years. It was the happiest she’d been since Bacon had passed. So it wasn’t too long before we realized Waffle would be sticking with us. Being a pandemic pup, he’s a tad needy. He only wants to sit ON people, all the time, even at night. As I write this, he’s trying to sit on me, under my laptop. But he’s getting used to being in his crate during the day, and we’re more hopeful today than we were in March that he could handle us actually leaving the house for work again someday.

Every day we wake up, I make oatmeal and coffee, and then open the New York Times app to doom scroll the latest updates on the U.S. COVID-19 response. Laurie comes down from upstairs, feeds the dogs, and we usually have a nice, leisurely breakfast to chat and talk about the day, more relaxed by the fact that our commutes have been replaced by logging in to Slack and Zoom. Most days, I can get a nice long bike ride in — my route out to Fitchburg is around 30 miles — and Laurie does a YouTube workout in the office before classes begin. It’s a kind of strange routine, but it’s consistent, and safe, and apart from never getting to see anyone else we love and care about in person, we can’t ask for much more than that.

The routine really took shape this summer, when it became clear we were in this world for the long haul. Where Laurie and I had shared an office in the spring, we instead re-made our spare bedroom into a functioning Zoom second grade classroom/dog kennel. I built a desk out of up-cycled butcher block boards from a meat truck, and carved out a little work nook in our bedroom, where I now spend about 16 hours out of every day. 

Beginning in September, Laurie started each day at her new virtual school — Schenk Elementary, a building she’s never been to — getting second graders hyped up for another day of virtual learning. I never really got to observe Laurie actually teaching in the past, so it’s been kind of interesting to eavesdrop from time to time. (I really enjoyed the lesson on how to distinguish a fact from an opinion — highly relevant life skill!) The fact that Laurie is finding ways to help kids thrive in all this is a testament to two facts we should all hold dear — 1) teachers do all the work to build what little semblance of order we have holding society together, and 2) kids are resilient as hell.

Making radio at home has been kind of a throwback for me. Editing tape recorded outside of a studio, usually at desk, being scrappy and using whatever you have to record audio at both ends of the conversation? That’s the kind of podcasting experience I had before I ever worked at WPR. So early on, while we all had a fair amount of shock to work through when it came to producing a weekly radio show from home, I took to the new way of working pretty quickly. Finally, everyone was happy to use Slack, to take notes in Google Drive, to collaborate with every digital tool at our disposal! Months later, the novelty has kind of worn off. It doesn’t mean things have returned to normal, or that working on TTBOOK has ever really been normal. The fact that my job involves Zoom calling a 90-year-old award-winning African novelist, teaching him how to record himself using the voice memo app on his phone, and instructing him in the process of uploading that recording to the cloud where I can grab it for national broadcast? That’s weird. Kind of awesome, but weird.

From March of this year to today, there has been a profound sameness in our lives. Which is so strange to think about, because it feels like the world outside our house has been turned upside down three times over in that time.

When George Floyd was killed, we talked about if we felt comfortable marching, given the possibility of bringing COVID-19 home with us. But the fact that we could worry about that at all made us realize just how much privilege we have. There’s so much work to do, and the stakes are so very, very high — I’m proud of everyone who marched, and demonstrated, and did it all as safely as they could. While I have unique constraints on what I can say and advocate for as a journalist, I’m proud that I can say that Black lives matter — and I’m professionally embarrassed that there was hesitation about that from me and the organization I work for. That fear is unacceptable for those with so much privilege keeping us safe. I’m kind of ashamed that I was so afraid early on, but I’m trying to work through it and be a better, more vocal ally. Thankfully, Laurie has been actively anti-racist in her classroom and in the world for years, and I’m trying to learn more closely from her example. 

This letter has already gone on forever, so I’ll get a few more updates in as concisely as I can. 

  • In February we said goodbye to our trusty Prius and bought a Kia Niro — another hybrid that we didn’t even know existed until we saw it on a best of list. We broke it in by taking a last minute road trip to St. Louis at the end of February (AKA Beercation). 🚗

  • In May, Laurie graduated with her masters in educational psychology. It’s the culmination of so much work and I couldn’t be more proud. Celebrating a graduation virtually was weird — turns out you don’t need the same amount of beer you would need for an in-person graduation party. 🤷‍♂️

  • This summer, Mr. Bones beat cancer, like it was no big deal. Fuck cancer, go Mr. Bones! 🦴

  • I biked 2287 miles. I had originally planned to do some big races this summer, but those all went virtual pretty early in the pandemic. But had I done them, I bet I could have hit my 2500 mile goal! 🚴‍♀️

  • After our first full summer with our garden boxes in full operation, I can say that we might have over-produced kale. We have so much kale. Do you need some kale? 🥬

I’ll spare you the list of complaints and disappointments from this year. There were a lot. This was a year that pretty much everyone who was supposed to be in charge in any way failed us. But it did make me realize something — if we want a positive future, we have to make it ourselves. We have to speak up about what we know the right thing to do is. And we can’t let stupid just be stupid.

In 2021, we’re looking forward to being vaccinated (hopefully by the end of the year?) and seeing you all again. That’s all. That’s all we want, apart from maybe finally renovating our bathroom. 

We love and miss you all, and hope you’re healthy in mind and body. This has been a year where so many have lost so much, and for everyone who has suffered as a result of this pandemic — either from the disease, from loss of a loved one, or from the added strain of trying to get by in a dangerous and uncertain time — we’re holding you in our hearts.

Be safe, wear a mask, and get the vaccine when the time comes. Hopefully we can learn from this year to make the world a little bit better in the next.

With love, 
Mark, Laurie, Mac, Mr. Bones, and Waffle.

PS We pulled some photo highlights from this weird year too.