A Letter From Austin #14: The Year That Was

Salvaging Something From a Year Full of Beatdowns

2021 felt like the last year of a war. Donald Trump’s army of the unhappy made a last desperate push to thwart the results of the 2020 presidential election, but weren’t quite strong enough to actually hang Mike Pence or derail the electoral college vote count for more than a few hours. As the year wore on and arrests were made, things seemed to be returning to normal, but there were still rebel groups operating on the outskirts of town, and every once in a while we thought we could hear the distant rattle of gunfire.

We didn’t have to deal with empty supermarket shelves, like we did in 2020, but Covid reminded us in a hundred ways that life is not quite the same as it was before the pandemic. And just when we thought we were about clear of the virus, yet another strain popped up in South Africa and then quickly jumped the ocean to terrorize Europe and the U.S. So far, omicron looks more like a Covid mini-me than a more menacing iteration of the virus, but it’s a sobering reminder that we’ll be dealing with variants of this bug for a long time to come.

And then, of course, we also had the usual worries to contend with: climate change; Russia and China; illegal immigration and racial violence. So 2021 wasn’t exactly a banner year, but it wasn’t a complete loss either. While the January 6 riot was frightening, the nation’s law enforcement agencies and courts have stepped up to apprehend and penalize at least some of those responsible. And while Covid has killed hundreds of thousands of Americans, we do have a vaccine that has saved countless lives and provided an encouraging hint that Science — even pharmaceutical science — can sometimes work miracles in a matter of months.

And that brings up a movie I saw recently. Don’t Look Up, now streaming on Netflix, isn’t a space movie any more than Jaws is a marine biology movie. True, you’ll get to hear the words “Oort Cloud” and “orbital dynamics” spoken by an A-list actor, but writer/director Adam McKay’s real interest is in skewering celebrity culture, morning show chirpiness, scientific ignorance, and America’s self-directed division into warring political camps. I give it a 90 on the Morbid Amusement scale, with bonus points for Mark Rylance’s delightfully creepy take on some sort of Elon Musk/Elizabeth Holmes/Steve Jobs character. Take a look if you get a chance. It’s a long film, but a dinner table scene near the end is brilliant, both muted and eloquent, and you’ll be interested to know what a “brontaroc” is.

Let’s talk about that dinner scene. This is a spoiler, but I’ll try not to be too specific. A group of characters meets to share dinner and each other’s company. Things are looking pretty bleak, because a comet the size of Mt. Everest is bearing down on Earth, threatening to end all civilized life on the planet. One character strikes a wistful note as he remembers life in America before the threat arose. It’s unclear exactly what he’s seeing in his head, but I like to think it’s the little things we take for granted. Pears at the grocery store. Wikipedia. Our smart phones. Church. National Forests. The Green Bay Packers. Elections. He’s not bitter. He’s just disappointed.

“We really did have everything, didn’t we?” he muses.

We did. And rather than complain (again) about 2021 and its indignities, I propose to see it as a reminder of how fragile life and democracy and decency are in the world, and how lucky we are to have these things still, even if they’re not perfect.

Onward.

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Bruce McCandless III

I'm an Austin-based writer trying to figure out space, science, and Texas politics. For more, see: www.brucemccandless.com