I think most of us would gladly erase 2020 from our memories, in the same way that certain tall buildings fail to acknowledge the 13th floor.
By almost any measure, it’s been a trash fire of a year. I could list what makes this true — the various fuels feeding the conflagration — but you know them. To one degree or another, you’ve probably been burned.
Instead, let’s take a few moments at year’s end to think about some things that are worth keeping from 2020, the achievements and developments, personal and societal, that might fill a little silver-linings notebook.
- Inequality awareness. Yes, we’ve seen statistics about rising income disparity in the U.S., about the way the haves since roughly the 1970s have been having a lot more of the communal pie. But 2020 drove it home in a way that was visceral. As food-pantry lines lengthened, as COVID-19 hit poorer people harder, as young people took to the streets to protest racially-based mistreatment, as an eviction crisis swelled toward a coming crest, it was impossible to ignore that this society we’ve tolerated fundamentally ain’t just. So now we know. Even the most blithe or heartless person we know knows. What are we going to do about it?
- Culinary development. As the weeks turned into months and the wisdom of staying in our bubbles remained clear, the great question of the day became: "What’s for dinner?" So we made sourdough, at least until we figured out that having a fresh loaf of sourdough twice a week was not ideal even for waistlines typically surrounded by sweatpants. After that, we made sourdough castoffs into a delectable (and freezable!) pizza dough. We learned to make refrigerator pickles, a kitchen skill only a couple of notches more challenging than toasting the aforementioned bread. We pickled onions, a lot, because: tacos. But we also pickled green tomatoes and green beans, and they all tasted great even as they boosted our gut health and made us think about wearing more gingham. Oh, and we finally tried homemade hummus — because we had purchased enough chick peas for a battalion back when COVID-19 first made us think about stocking up — and now we are collectively kicking ourselves for buying the stuff ready-made at stores all these years. There were more complicated recipes, too, but I won’t boast.
- Buffoon rebuffery. It was closer than it ought to have been — fewer than 100,000 votes in a few states could have tipped things the other way. But a record number of people voted for the calm, humane moderate who respects the nation’s government and traditions over the fellow who’s existed in the highest office like, in comedian John Mulaney’s unforgettable formulation, "a horse in a hospital." It’s an ongoing battle, but for now at least the America we thought we knew has reasserted itself.
- Television mastery. In the midst of watching every single thing on Netflix, half of Hulu and — why not? — a three-hour bloc of kitchen-gadget infomercials, we finally learned how to "cast" video from our phones to our TVs. We learned where to find that elusive final season of "Schitt’s Creek." We figured out how to change the "Picture" setting so that the movies we now have no choice but to watch in our living rooms do not look like home videos. And we even remembered to cancel Apple TV after plowing through "Ted Lasso" and "The Morning Show."
- Work-from-home ascendancy. Ring lights and webcams and curated backdrops. Zoom calls with bosses now dressed in a sackcloth. Brown paper packages piled as a stand. These were the things that made home office grand. So now that we’ve got it all set up just so — never have I been so obsessed with issues such as monitor height and mouse ergonomics — when we are able to "go back to work," will we? At a minimum, a lot more people are going to have options.
- Expertise appreciation. This, too, is a continuing battle. But if you were paying attention, you had to recognize and cheer the triumphs in 2020 of medical workers treating coronavirus patients, of scientists fabricating effective vaccines more quickly than has ever before been accomplished, of the general value of putting trust in people who are trained to do their jobs well. It was a year that ended with absolutely everyone knowing exactly who we mean when we say, "America’s leading infectious disease expert."
- Athlete awakening. Building on the example set by Colin Kaepernick, NBA stars refused to restart their interrupted season until the league accommodated pro-equality demands including turning stadiums into polling places. The even more outspoken WNBA dedicated its entire season to social justice. And it spread outward so that, for instance, pro soccer teams in Europe and the U.S. began games by taking a knee for the cause. What was once controversial enough to get an all-star player blacklisted from his league is now mainstream, endorsed by other professional leagues.
- Outdoors elevation. Whether sitting around a backyard firepit, cycling alongside a downstate river or rock climbing in a national park, we learned to love open air with the passion it deserves but maybe hasn’t always received. More than a marketing slogan, the great outdoors became a lifeline for people who wanted to visit safely with friends and a reminder that we are of this world, not over it. Even as winter settles in and we try to bend nature to our comfort levels — I’m looking at you, newly purchased patio heater — we are seeking out plein air to replenish constricted souls.
- Urban reimagining. How much this will endure we’ll have to see. But during 2020 cities across America began to acknowledge that streets — the public way — are for the whole public, not just that portion of it that happens to be surrounded by two tons of motorized metal, and that maybe certain European cities have had a better idea. Car dominance this year was challenged by the development of new bike routes and the creation of outdoor dining plazas. It was a clever response to the demand for outdoor space and, bigger picture, a healthy acknowledgement that not every avenue needs to be traversable by a Ford F150. As I looked this summer at Clark Street in Chicago's River North neighborhood cordoned off for restaurant tables and people on bicycles pedaling by on less-car-congested streets, I could only say to myself, "Amster-DAM!"
Steve Johnson covers arts and entertainment for the Chicago Tribune.