It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times…
As I write this, exactly six months have gone by since my first day of remote working. The March 17th version of myself thought surely he’d be back in the office by May; he didn’t even bother to bring home his desk mouse.
The first few months of 2020 were actually pretty great for him and he was eager to keep that momentum going after a brief lockdown… boy was he (I) wrong. One ill-advised buzzcut, three quarantine beards, and 200,000 deaths later, I’m still working alongside cats instead of co-workers — and the only mice I have handy are the toy kind.
Six months sounds at the same time both too short and too long of a period to describe my remote work stint. There was no spring and no summer vacation, so half a year can’t possibly have elapsed since March. I can hardly remember the world of February 2020 (maybe there was a Super Bowl?), so surely it’s been much longer than half a year since March.
Regardless of how long I’ve actually been working from my childhood desk, there’s no doubt the world in which I find myself carefully framing Zoom backgrounds today is inconceivably different from the one where I was trying to figure out what the heck Zoom even was back in March.
The only facemasks March 17th Matthew owned were those from Halloweens past, forever relegated to storage bins. September 17th Matthew is now more apt to forget his wallet than a face mask when going out in public. March 17th Matthew couldn’t get enough of Taylor Swift’s poppy “1989” tracks. September 17th Matthew just wants to curl up in a blanket and cry while streaming somber Taylor’s “Folklore.”
The biggest difference between March 17th Matthew and September 17th Matthew: a drastic change in worldview, from eternal optimism to despondency. It’s certainly no wonder why 2020 hasn’t been a year for optimists like my former self. Coronavirus, George Floyd (and Breonna Taylor, and Jacob Blake, and too many others), catastrophic fires in both hemispheres, and an Iowa derecho — who even knew that wind event was a thing? — are just a handful of the countless terrible things that have happened.
And what guarantee is there that 2021 will be any better, or even just not worse? The pandemic is not contained, there is an upsettingly long way to go in the fight for racial justice, and climate change is making everything worse. March 17th Matthew was grasping onto any and all reasons for hope in the early days of quarantine, like those “Some Good News” videos from John Krasinski. September 17th Matthew is watching for frogs to start falling from the sky — anxious for the apocalypse to just happen already.
The pervasive isolation feels largely to blame for my eroding optimism. Introverted March 17th Matthew had been living alone for eight years and loving it. At first, the quarantine lifestyle seemed like a perfect opportunity to try out some new hobbies — remember, it was only supposed to last a few months in March 17th Matthew’s mind — so he excitedly dove into new pursuits.
He tried out fan fiction, he took up stop-motion animation, he experimented with homemade calzones. Really the only thing separating March 17th Matthew and Ben Wyatt was inventing The Cones of Dunshire, and that might have happened next.
But when June hit and the world was in even worse shape than it was in March, the novelty of so much free time at home evaporated, replaced by an increasingly suffocating sense of loneliness. Zoom happy hours, Zoom family check-ins, and Zoom yoga offered some much-needed social connection — but only through screens. Weekly trips to see the lovely people at Trader Joe’s became (and still largely are) the highlights of my life.
September 17th Matthew would consider taking in Hannibal Lecter as a roommate, just for someone to talk to.
Much like Carton and Darnay in “A Tale of Two Cities,” March 17th Matthew and September 17th Matthew are two very similar looking, but very psychologically different, people. Carton — the more cynical of the two Dickens characters — ends up on the guillotine while Darnay lives, but I fear that in my case, the more cynical September 17th Matthew will be the one that survives.
Even if a COVID vaccine magically gets released tomorrow, the pandemic is just one of a myriad of issues we have to deal with, and probably not even the worst. Sure, climate change, systemic racism, toxic masculinity, etc. were already problems in March 17th Matthew’s world, but that version of myself still — perhaps naively — believed that humanity was generally good and capable of coming together to save ourselves and our planet. Nowadays, September 17th Matthew isn’t so sure of either of those things.
And even if they are true, it might be too late.
The best I can probably hope for at this point is that March 17th, 2021 Matthew will be somewhere in between the two 2020 versions. Hoping for a full return to my rose-glassed former self, whom I much preferred, just sounds delusional after this hellscape of a half-year.
Where on the spectrum between optimism and despondency my future self will fall probably depends a lot on November 3rd — if you’re reading this, 1) thanks! and 2) please please please vote — but a new administration alone won’t make everything okay. And it’s hard to imagine what will, given just how not OK everything is.
This upcoming winter is almost certainly going to be one of despair and the prospects for next spring being one of hope don’t look great. The worst of times, indeed.
Matthew Downey is a transportation planner and occasional writer living in Centennial.