Beneath the bright blue stage lights of Ballard’s Tractor Tavern, last Friday’s headliners bade the audience join them in shedding the baggage of calendar year 2022. These past 12 months, the band reminded us, have been messed up. Chaotic. We should all look forward to turning a new and healthier leaf in 2023.
Some cheered in response. Others whooped. But I thought, really?
As editorial space fills with broad-brush retrospectives and year-end listicles, I’ve seen this dour stance replicated ad nauseum. If the internet is to be believed, the year 2022 ranged from bad to very bad, with not much deviation and a side of WW III.
Pessimism is a hungry beast. Most Decembers, I’m all too happy to feed it. But this year feels different. Faced with our typical naysaying, our 12-month doom loop, I’ve been suffering knee-jerk optimism.
With clear caveats – Ukraine, Dobbs, mass shootings – what strikes me about American fatalism in the year 2022 is the blind eye it turns to 2021, or, on an even more dire note, 2020.
In other words: aren’t we on the up and up?
Our last round of holidays, in case you’ve forgotten, withered under the long shadow of Omicron. On December 14, 2021, the United States reported 117,000 new Covid cases. By early January, we regularly reported over a million. Shops and schools shuttered — again. Shows and social functions were scrapped — again. The American mood spun from glum to actively bedridden – and then someone pushed that bed off a cliff. I don’t need to elaborate. We all remember.
At least, I think we remember. I hope we remember. Given our vicinity to that ordeal, is it so hard to inject a bit of perspective into the national prognosis?
The first year I remember designated as the “worst ever” was 2016. I drove a long, terrible commute back then from Fremont to a strip mall office park in Redmond, and my Corolla’s radio brimmed with portent. I remember the day David Bowie died (January 10). Not long after, I remember the day Prince died (April 21). Embellished by the backdrop of a Trump candidacy, these losses had the feeling of a long, inescapable hangover. By the time November rolled around, and Trump actually won, the majority of Americans – obligatory electoral college dig – descended into collective purgatory.
Though we called 2016 the “worst,” 45 hadn’t even been sworn in yet. As the calendar flipped, things soured – in some cases, they soured more than we thought possible. Once again we experienced 2017 as the “worst ever,” with more of the same in 2018. But nothing could prepare us for Covid.
I took a trip down trauma lane the other night with Megan Park’s excellent directorial film debut The Fallout, which charts a teenager’s road to recovery after being trapped in a bathroom during a high school shooting. With humor and empathy, Park reminds us that the path to convalescence charts uneven terrain. We climb up, we fall down. Memories fade one moment and bubble up the next. I don’t mean to juxtapose Covid with a gun-fueled massacre. I only mean to say that most of us, in those long years of sickness and isolation, underwent real trauma. Just like The Fallout’s protagonist, a stellar Jenny Ortega, we’re still on the mend.
It’s therefore curious that, in so many of this year’s annual recaps, Covid comes across as a bit player. Blinking our eyes dry on the other side (I know, I know) of a pandemic, we’ve reinstated our slew of the usual problems. Or rather, with a helping hand from Putin and the Supreme Court, those problems have been foisted upon us against our will.
The issue with all this is that the fourth estate profits from panic. If ad-based sale algorithms had their way, we’d all live in a glass house shantytown beneath the same never-ending LED billboard, a dazzling superstorm of emergency sirens, weight loss products, and imminent death. Thanks to our unchecked screen time and internet reliance, this reality feels closer than we might admit. Everywhere we see the consensus that things are bad. Ergo, things must be bad.
During a recent interview on Stephen Colbert’s late night show, this feedback loop was recounted in prescient terms by Filipino journalist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Maria Ressa, out on tour for her new book How to Stand up to a Dictator: The Fight for Our Future.
Confronting an authoritarian power in this day and age, she explained, often means confronting social media companies. In the Philippines, “one enabled the other.” As Ressa defied the brutal Duterte regime with her digital news outlet Rappler, she simultaneously called for systematic changes to Facebook, which has long monopolized Filipino internet traffic (“Facebook is our internet,” she says).
Faced with the gleaming portal of our devices, per Ressa, “A lie said a million times becomes a fact.” Rooted in falsehood, Duterte’s violent drug crackdown mirrored January 6, in that neither would have been possible without social media. In the absence of facts, of general truth, “We have no shared reality. We can’t solve any problems.”
As a follow-up, Colbert asked Ressa if she had a message for Zuck and Musk – and here’s where the Nobel laureate delivered her greatest insight. At this point, says Ressa, social media’s data economy is so baked into our capitalistic society – see Soshana Zuboff’s work – the apps have outpaced any form of traditional corporate control. “What keeps you scrolling?” Ressa faced the camera. “Lies. Fear. Anger. Hatred. Us against them. More money comes in as you become more afraid, as you become more hateful.”
And if American history tells us anything, it’s that you can’t derail a money train.
Wading through 2022’s year-end punditry, I keep returning to Ressa’s interview. Though we Americans are no longer governed by a would-be autocrat, I wonder if our tech dependency makes us vulnerable to a kind of soft dictatorship, one of algorithm-fueled angst.
Fear-based revanchism has for some time been a mainstay of the American Right, but the pessimism I’m talking about isn’t rooted in Koch Industries. It manifests all around us, in city and suburbs alike, from NPR to the Seattle Times to The Rings of Power and Dahmer.
There’s much to malign in our world. But this doesn’t mean we can’t celebrate progress. In order to resist social media, to stand up to our unseen oppressors, I say we salute a year of growth.
In the summer of 2021, as vaccines kicked in and pandemic restrictions wound down, my old Seattle roommate came to visit from Israel. He and his wife had moved to New York in November 2019, and after a harrowing Covid confinement at the foot of the Williamsburg Bridge, had relocated to Jerusalem in 2021 for a cantor training program.
His Seattle visit kindled a much-needed catharsis. How novel, that we could see our friends again! That we could travel on planes, could think outside our tiny pandemic spheres!
The most dramatic development, at least for musicians like us, was a return to shows. Reunited in Fremont for an outdoor concert series, we toasted the sonic spark of a live drum kit, the vitality of a dancing crowd. At one point I looked around and asked if our old friend Mike was coming.
My friend shook his head and said that Mike had sent him a text: Too sleepy.
“Too… sleepy?” At this I turned a full circle, so that all at once I took in the rapturous audience, the band, the sound guy, the smattering of vendor tents – the largest congregation of people I’d seen in a full year, sporting an ebullient spirit I couldn’t remember associating with Seattle, ever.
“I don’t think I’ll say no to another event in my life,” I told my friend. “In fact,” slightly inebriated, “I don’t think I need to sleep again, ever. I’ve basically been asleep for 15 months.”
Not long after my pal flew back to Jerusalem, our world bowed beneath the Delta variant. Omicron arrived fresh on its heels. Come wintertime, those summer concerts once again felt incomprehensible.
In The Fallout’s final scene, a recuperating Jenny Ortega picks up her buzzing phone to find a news alert: there’s been another school shooting, this one in Ohio. Her emotional floor bucks, then crumbles. The camera pans to a white sky and then fades to credits, with Ortega’s sobbing in the background.
I’m not sure if I enjoyed or needed this last sequence. But it does underpin Park’s directorial message: recovery is nonlinear by nature.
If the Covid vaccines incited manic optimism, that optimism was quickly tempered by reality. The peaks and valleys of our pandemic case count were a rollercoaster ride we all wished would run out of steam, and even if it hasn’t – not in the scientific sense – we do seem to have made it through some kind of darkness. For me, this year was about that.
Prolonging this analogy, let’s all of us visit a small gift shop near the rollercoaster’s end. On televised screens behind the cash register, we see snapshots of our expressions from those peak months in 2020, 2021, and, yes, even 2022.
“Wow,” we say to ourselves. “Check out our frame of mind back then. How scared we looked. How lonely we were.”
The bit ends here, because I love rollercoasters, and there was nothing fun about that one. Though some of us made of it what we could, I don’t think we’d ride again if given the chance.
Here in America, I don’t see any logical grounds for deeming 2022 the “worst year ever.” Especially for the school-aged crowd, this might have been the best stretch in recent memory. By heeding an insistently negative drumbeat, we rob ourselves of the joy that’s right there for the taking.
At least until Putin brings out the nukes.