The year I’ll become a cheerleader: Cautious optimism meets bitter realism in 2021

Remember all those word-truthers who went on and on in 2019 about how the new decade starts in 2021, not 2020? I think they had a point…

This post isn’t going to go on ad nauseum about the awfulness of 2020. We get it: the year sucked. And as much as we’d all possibly like to think of today as the start of a fresh, unsullied 365-day period, the truth is that the pandemic isn’t over. Racism and injustice isn’t over. Exploitation of the working class and economic disparity isn’t over. Hell, the current administration still has 19 days to smash up any last bits of remaining stability on its way out of the White House, and don’t think they won’t try.

But as Jonny Sun wrote this morning, “sometimes we need things outside of ourselves to help us believe that things can be different when it’s hard to believe it ourselves.” And that’s why 2021 — at least for me — is starting with a healthy cocktail of cautious optimism in a glass rimmed with bitter realism, all ending in me getting pink-faced and breathless while cheering on my friends.

(I’m doing Dry January, too, so excuse the booze-based metaphors. That and unspiked eggnog are all I’ve got right now.)

For a lot of us — notably the privileged (white, able-bodied, young, financially comfortable) among us — this is the first year that “survive” is at the top of our list of goals. COVID isn’t going away quickly, even with a vaccine now available, and I fear that the “crisis fatigue” that lured people away from playing it safe during the summer is about to hit us like a face mask soaked in chloroform. I saw a projection today that said the U.S. death toll will likely reach 700,000 by the time we wipe out the virus entirely. At 350,000-ish deaths today, we’re only halfway there.

So there’s the bitter realism on the rim of the glass. If you were able to tolerate it, now you get to balance it out with some optimism.

Any rose-tinted attitude I have toward the new year and next decade is directly due to the people around me, and here’s why: In the last 36 hours of 2020, my friends contributed more than $800 to Women Employed, an organization that’s been working for 43-plus years to enable equity for women in the workplace. One of those friends ran a virtual New Years Eve fundraiser herself for Brave Space Alliance, the only trans-led, Black-led LGBTQ+ organization serving the South and West sides of Chicago, and collected more than $550 in just 3 hours. The willingness and enthusiasm of the friends around me to take action for the causes we support made it hard to walk into 2021 with anything more than unabashed hope. There’s plenty of work to be done, but at least I know there’s also plenty of people willing to contribute to the effort. That in itself is enough to celebrate.

Which is why, in conjunction with my “survive” goal of 2021, I’ve decided that this is the year that I will become the loudest, most spirited cheerleader I can be for friends, family and causes that I support. It’s good for my soul and psyche, good for their self-esteem and energy, and (I hope) good for the world around us.

In fact, it might do us all some good to find someone or something to shake our virtual pompoms for — even if they haven’t made it to their goal yet. Remember that cheerleaders don’t show up after the game to celebrate with the winning team: They’re present from the first whistle-blow onward, and they rally support and sponsorship along the entire road to victory. And they have fun doing it! As Jonny Sun wrote, sometimes we need things outside of ourselves to give us hope, and while today that’s the change of the calendar to 2021, for the remainder of the year, that should be those who inspire us, help us grow, and make us want to be better contributors to the world around us.

Now pass me that bullhorn — I’ve got some people to cheer.

Scene of the write: Flight to a viral zone

Every passenger walked on with a TSA-approved packet of Clorox wipes and as many 3.4-liter containers of hand sanitizer they could fit in a quart-sized ziplock. Stand too close to someone and they’re a cleared throat away from punching you in the mouth before finishing their march up the aisle to their assigned seat — any one but the middle one. In fact, almost every middle seat is empty on this United flight to Seattle-Tacoma. When was the last time you could say that?

The same tray tables they once leaned their arms and head on as they snoozed; the same entertainment screens they tapped, hypnotized by the amount of movies and TV options they weren’t interested in; the same buttons they used to lean their seat back or call a flight attendant — they’re now dripping in disinfectant, and still off-limits.

Every cough that was once merely annoying is now a death threat. Every sneeze is eyed with suspicion. “If I wake up dead, it’ll be your fault,” you can hear people think as you sniffle, try not to touch your face. Wait, is my throat suddenly scratchy? Is my head getting hot? Or is it just because I haven’t taken off the three layers of clothing that are guarding me against a certain demise?

Flight attendants gingerly hand over full cans of soda so as not to contaminate the top, but it doesn’t stop people from spit-shining the rim before cracking one open. Better the germs you know, right?

Four and three-quarter hours later, we land in the viral zone. Another person has died since we took off, and the terminal is empty for a Tuesday at 7 p.m. A handful of mask-wearing employees hustle past with an older woman in a wheelchair. And then I see it: The true sign that Armageddon is upon us, and that I’ve landed at Ground Zero for humankind’s extinction.

The Starbucks is closed.