Last Year on Earth

Greatest Hits, 2020: My 15 favorite essays from my least favorite year.

Ah, so this is dystopia. As I annually do, I’ve curated a list of my favorite pieces from the year that was, each with a small snippet of director’s commentary.

In last year’s edition, I remember saying: “I initially wanted to cut this list to a Top-10, but, sadly, dystopia has been very good for business and has given me a lot to talk about.” Well, in 2020, we reached a level of hell that depressed me past the point of wanting to say much at all.

I wrote significantly less this year than I did in either 2018 or 2019. Instead I expended most of my energy merely trying to endure the irreconcilable — a global nightmare with two rules governing my proceedings:

  1. Don’t catch the coronavirus.
  2. Don’t run out of money.

I just barely did both. In a year of unimaginable hardship and grief, I know that makes me one of the lucky ones.

Along the way, I tried to put my thoughts to (figurative) paper and post these dispatches from the end of the world for what was left of the world to read along. Below the following stanza, I’ve scrounged what I believe to be my 15 strongest entries from our last year on Earth for you.

I’d like to wrap this introduction with a photo. It’s from March 7 (or 7 March, depending on where in the world you are). 5:24 p.m. local time. It was the night after they cancelled SXSW — the true commencement of the United States of Pandemica — and it was the the last photo I took before everything changed.

This year was a decade. I came into 2020 with high hopes on a personal level, despite my well-documented low expectations of the world around me. I was peaking: 2018 was the by far the best year of my life until 2019 zoomed well beyond even that. I was to start a business, expatriate, travel the world, give presentations and branding workshops, maybe publish a book.

By the time I took the photo below, I really felt like I was flying at uncharted altitudes. I mean, just read this caption:

“Tbh I just think I look really fucking hot which is a welcome change from how I used to see myself. I grew up most my life thinking “oh I’m ehhhh” or “I’m cute (?)” but like lately it just don’t hit like that anymore. I became a better human who took better care of himself. I got kind and confident and courageous. My life got dope. I learned how to dress.

Then all the sudden I saw myself and was like, “you know what? That guy could probably get it.” … I feel myself now in a way I never have before. And I deserve to. Proudly and publicly. As do you. Cheers, y’all.”

That night, I remember meeting with a friend and fellow operative about writing for a congressional campaign, drinking and laughing an obscene amount thereafter, wrecking a dozen oysters at one of my favorite French restaurants in town, joining my musician friends for a concert crawl on a tightly packed party bus, telling at least a dozen folks that I loved them and making out with an unidentifiable someone before woozily mowing down a delicious Shrimp Po-Boy, alone under the canopy of the everchanging Austin skyline.

It felt like my own personal “This Is Your Life” in 12 hours or less. My head didn’t hit the pillow until just past 3 a.m. I remember thinking: I’ll probably be gone from here soon, and if that was indeed my last night out in Austin, at least I went out on the highest of notes.

And that was it. I don’t need to tell you what happened next. You know. You couldn’t escape it. The world went dark. 300,000 Americans lost their lives. 60 million Americans lost their jobs. The cracked social contract fractured under the weight of a microscopic contagion.

In hindsight, it felt dumb and selfish to want anything out of this year, or to expect anything out of life at all. The future’s not guaranteed, there’s no moral arc of the universe, and there needs to be a radical reassessment and reapportionment of our resources and priorities at a civilizational scale.

The sense of panic, grief and desperation I felt this year on a semi-hourly basis will likely fade with time. The lowered expectations I now hold for my life and future I’m afraid are permanent.

This is what I looked like that night, somehow this year, before the old world expired. It’s an eerie reminder of an alternate future that never arrived. Back when I was ‘feeling myself in a way I never have before’. Back when there was everything to love and look forward to. It was all beautiful, and then it was gone.

Image for post
Image for post
Self-Portrait // March 7, 2020 // Austin, Texas

I don’t look like that anymore. I’m at least 30 pounds heavier and 10 years older now. I won’t judge if the same could be said about you. This wasn’t, and isn’t, easy. We’re all just trying to take care of ourselves in a world that doesn’t seem to take much care in taking care of anyone.

If you’re still here reading this, thank you for making it, and please give yourself some rest. You deserve much more than that— some answers, comfort, hope, reunions and reparations — but for now, some rest (and hopefully some reading!) will do.

Now, onto my favorite 15 essays from my least favorite year, arranged chronologically, chronicling our descent into darkness.

Love and warmest wishes,
JG

№1: We Will Always Have Water (February 8)

In retrospect, the events of 2020 made this crushing pre-pandemic rumination on death, decay, destruction, rebirth and relocation even more of what it already was. I wrote all 7,000 words in one eight-hour sitting, only taking (frequent) breaks to sob. An autobiography, a tribute to my hometown, a eulogy for the Rust Belt, and a plea for climate action. It’s all of those things and it’s yet unlike anything I’ve ever written before, or will ever write again.

№2: Waking Up Is Only Half the Battle (February 15)

Another long, mournful, haunting harbinger for times to come, this essay was also written in one uninterrupted span, sitting outside on a freezing cold coffeehouse patio, as afternoon turned to evening turned to night. The lesson within is simple: It’s easy (and understandable) to become cynical at the way of the world. The point from there is to transcend that cynicism, and turn it into radical expression of joy in the face of all that, if you can.

№3: What If This Is Our Darkest Timeline? (March 14)

At a few points in the Before Time, I sat down with some rich folks. They were nervous as hell. Their dominant concern was the imminent upsetting of the world order. As it turned out, their fears weren’t unfounded. That world order did break; it just broke everyone but them. This piece is a crack in the window to another world — the hivemind of the capital class. As the lights went out, I felt it crucial for all of us to take a look.

№4: May We Yearn for New Horizons (March 26)

I was scrolling through my Facebook feed and stopped cold at this photo of a little girl staring at the Texas State Capitol, in broad daylight on Congress Avenue in Austin. No photo truly hammered the middle of the Venn diagram between “How could you?” “What next?” and “Here’s where life used to be” quite like this, and so I just stared at the picture and wrote. This amoebic combo of prose of poetry — with the best final line in anything I’ve written to date — is a requiem for the old world, and a remembrance of the few things worth honoring and carrying with us as we make our way into the next one. I wrote it overnight (really, between about midnight and 8 a.m.), and in the morning I sent the piece to the photographer. I told her “I owe you one.” Several months later, we met for the first time and I paid her back … when I hired her to take my headshots.

№5: How to Work Up the Strength to Work (April 8)

The pandemic was draining on all of us, and about a month in we all sorta had the same collective realization: who can even work at a time like this? My first essay for Forge started as a response to an Instagram Q&A with my readers when they asked me how I deal with procrastination. I massaged it, went deeper into it, and published it.

№6: Why No One Is Reading Your Writing (April 24)

Clickbait-and-switch returns in this long recollection of my history of writing on the Internet, and some useful advice for new folks along the way. But, I’m warning you, if you’re new to the canon … you’re not going to get the answer you’re looking for. Instead you’ll get the answers you need.

№7: Some Wounds Just Don’t Heal (May 5)

A mantra from one of my favorite essays reads: “you can turn the page, but you can’t erase it.” I’ve likened life to a work of art where you’re always painting over what’s already been painted, and even the ugly shit can be made beautiful if you’re willing to grow and change and have the courage to revisit the ugliness. Still, sometimes you don’t get the satisfaction of closure, and sometimes you grow around rather than up. Regret and acceptance were major themes of my work in 2020. (You’ll see more of both further down the list.)

№8: 90 Days, 400 Years (May 31)

This essay was, by a fairly significant margin, my most-read essay of the year. Written at the height of the Summer of Our Discontent — in the midst of the largest and most meaningful series of civil rights protests in half a century, in the middle of a second surge during the deadliest pandemic in a whole century — it was a damning indictment of US history, centered around perhaps the single most scathing line of social critique I’ve ever written.

№9: A Guide for White Writers Who Want to Do Better (June 2)

So, I originally titled this piece “Write Privilege.” The editors at the Medium mothership picked it up, cleaned it up, and gave it a less punny title. It’s technically a listicle, and while it does tackle the very serious topic of racism in white-centered writing, it doesn’t sacrifice some of the snickering humor of my usual listicles. It’s nowhere near gospel, but I do think it’s good (and useful) work. It was also my first Medium essay to be turned into an infographic. (Which I very much appreciate.)

№10: This American Lie (June 7)

The central premise of this essay is autobiographical: I made plans to leave the United States for Portugal on June 1, 2020. The pandemic locked me inside a country in which I had no desire to live. Depressed and raging, I took to Facebook and wrote the riot act. I listed myriad dark aspects of my life, with each successive entry widening the lens to include broader and broader themes. Then I copy-pasted it here. The enormous scroll of comments range from “shades of Baldwin,” to “sounds like your attitude is the problem.” Both are probably equally fair.

№11: A Letter of Acclimation (August 21)

For better or worse, I have different ways of marking “years.” There’s the calendar year, sure, but I also have my Solar Year which starts each year on my birthday, and my Fiscal Year which starts on the fourth weekend in August — a holdover from the start of school. Every year around the time of the latter, I write the Executive Summary of my “Annual Report.” It’s a check-in; a progress update. This year’s installment was the easiest to write because I’d spent the previous six months doing precisely nothing and had very little news to break. I think it also turned out to be the best, wisest and least navel-gazing of the four Medium “letters.”

№12: The Only Way to Get Life Right (November 13)

In the midst of writing this collection of interwoven mini-tales of regret and ambiguous non-closure, I remember texting my partner, “baby I’m gonna be late tonight.” I was in a serious zone with this one. I rarely tackle the weight of my personal history like this. In what I know are the densest 2,000 words I’ve ever published, I make one mountain out of many molehills, and kill a few fish in the process.

№13: The 3 Keys to Everything (November 18)

As Jodi Rempel commented: “THE STRUCTURE THO.” She was the only who “got it,” and I must admit it was pretty easy to miss. This unassuming little dispatch is a clickbait article about writing clickbait articles. It is also an appreciation of a viral clickbait article I wrote a couple of years ago, while doubling as a virtual rewrite of that same article. It’s essay-ception, with dozens of Easter Eggs from my earlier work hidden inside.

№14: Four Little Words That Will Change Your Life Forever (December 1)

And right back to the clickbait-and-switch well we go. “This is awesome. I’ll publish it, but it probably won’t get curated because the title will probably get flagged as clickbait,” said P.S. I Love You editor Dan Moore. It did not, because I think at this point the Medium brass has caught on to my act. Yet another exploration into regret, acceptance and closure (or lack thereof), the essay actually delivers what the title says it will, sandwiched between wistful stories of bad dates, bad decisions and bad behavior.

№15: The Year We Lost the Moon

2020 was a lot of things. Ultimately, I think it was a culmination — the tragic, unthinkable yet utterly logical extreme endpoint of all of human history to that point. We’ve had pandemics, depressions, democratic instability and reckonings over racism before. We’ve rarely if ever had all four so viscerally, all at the same time. That plus climate change made the conclusion clear: more of the same will be the death of us all.

Depending on your frame of reference, the world either stopped making sense this year, or it finally caught up to us. In the grandest of ways, I think it both are true. Or, as I summed up towards the end of this essay:

COVID-19 turned out never to be the “Great Equalizer” a few idiots proclaimed it would be back when the world was new and people were dumb in more charming ways. No, it turned out to be the “Great Amplifier.” Amplifying the injustices and imbalances between racial and ethnic groups, the fragility of our planet, the uselessness and meaninglessness of frivolous pursuits, the corruption at the top, the dangerous disinformation at scale, and the amount of global institutional repair we need to do to make it out of survival mode, and flourish at socially acceptable and equitable levels for generations to come.

2020 was hell. To get out will require us to think differently at local and global levels, and reimagine what it means to succeed personally, professionally and geopolitically. Maybe this isn’t the beginning of the end; maybe this year is the dark before the dawn. Doesn’t bring back the ones we lost. Doesn’t erase the hell that we’ve witnessed.

I wrote enough words this year. Probably too many. And even though I didn’t have much else to do, words have never been harder to write. Each word felt more trite and meaningless than the word before. My story’s not all that interesting, the story of Us isn’t mine to tell, and sometimes it’s just more important to listen to the world break around you, and feel it break you with it. And so I won’t close 2020 with any more words of my own.

Instead, I’ll close with and co-sign the eerily prescient words Anthony Bourdain spoke as he closed a year-ending VICE podcast interview back in 2016. We could sure use them.

Look, as dim a view as I have of the future right now, and it’s pretty goddamn grim…

And it’s not just exclusively an American problem, we’re seeing the rise of authoritarianism and strongman leaders everywhere…

Don’t be a hashtag activist.

Change is going to take some fucking time.

Dig in for the long haul.

Spend some time with the enemy.

Walk around in some other people’s shoes.

Try to get your priorities reasonable.

A little love.

Some good pasta.

Nice spicy noodles.

Survival.

Written by

Essayist and storyteller on life, liberty and the battle for happiness. Several million served. Words at Human Parts, Forge and PS I Love You. IG: heygorman

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