Ask a Fuck-Up On a Fucked-Up Year

Actors Clara Bow and Larry Gray, ca. 1925
Image: General Photographic Agency (Getty Images)
Ask a Fuck-UpAsk a Fuck-UpAdvice from someone who should know better by now

Instead of answering a letter this week, I thought it might be appropriate to write a kind of end-of-year reflection, since it is the end of a calendar year even if it doesn’t feel like the end of anything in any meaningful way, more like the late middle if I am being optimistic. Fitting, I guess, given the themes of this column, that this seemed like a good idea at the time and has since proven to be a dreadful task that I regret proposing at all. Turns out I’m not sure what there is to say, which is a real problem when you get paid to say things.

On the one hand, this year has felt mainly smaller and more meager and miserly—a contraction in all of the obvious ways, the thinning out of possibility and means. But it has also been a year of excessive, grotesque, spectacular waste: Squandered opportunities to avoid the worst outcomes, missed chances to take early action or effectively mitigate the consequences, and more than anything else the staggering waste of human potential and lives. Thousands and thousands of people who died for no other reason than they live in America rather than Australia or Vietnam. People who were loved and needed and people who were forgotten and abandoned; people who had books they were getting around to reading and who wanted to be forgiven for something and people who were waiting to meet their grandchildren; good people who shoveled their neighbor’s sidewalks and flawed ones who laughed at the Borowitz report. Every one a tragedy that didn’t have to happen, compiled into a daily update.

Americans don’t like to contemplate waste. We are urged to look at something, like this unfathomable number of people who didn’t have to die but did, and process it. Turn it into something meaningful. A lot of the digital content economy would grind to a halt if we slowed down production of “something terrible happened and this is what I learned from it” essays and I’m surely guilty of contributing to that. But I don’t think there’s anything to learn here. Early on it was common to hear that a pandemic is a “great equalizer,” which was obvious bullshit, and it’s just as silly to say now that it has “revealed” or “made clear” some long-hidden truth about this country. It was obvious from the start who would suffer the most because the answer is always the same. It seemed to me, early on, like maybe things had finally gotten so bad that we might be forced to change it, that at a minimum surely universal healthcare would become a priority, but those with the power to do anything about it wasted that chance too so the only real lesson there is that I’m an idiot, which is also something I already knew.

I suppose “short missives from an idiot” is also sort of the theme of this column, so fair enough. A friend of mine recently described it as “self-help” which I found very embarrassing because I always picture self-help people as kind of outwardly very cheerful and a bit rancid or greasy on the inside. Either way, I prefer to think my aim is encouraging everyone to abandon focusing on the self as much as possible and look outward. Step into the world once it is safe to do so and help other people, where you can. Happy New Year.


A Fuck-Up

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Brandy Jensen lives in New Orleans with her two dogs.



I just got home from my last hospital shift of the year.

I have lost my faith. Despite the events of the last four years, as I have watched Trumpism encourage and celebrate people’s worst qualities, I entered 2020 still believing in the innate goodness of Man. That belief died a slow, choking death this year.

I have watched countless, grotesque displays of selfishness that have left me broken at my core. Who could have imagined that asking people to wear a piece of paper or cloth over their faces, to literally keep other human beings from dying an agonizing and lonely death, would prompt the level of obscene vitriol and staggering stupidity we have all witnessed?

I suppose, after the last four years, I shouldn’t have been surprised.

Just today, about 2 hours before I type this, a woman broke down crying in one of my treatment rooms. As she took off her mask to sob, my staff and I grew uneasy as we counted the minutes of potential exposure. Obviously, patients are not allowed to take off their masks for any reason in our hospital, but we still tried our best to comfort her. She finally disclosed why she was so upset. Her adult daughter had just tested positive. For COVID. This woman spent time with her daughter 3 days ago, despite all recommendations, lied to the screeners at the hospital door, and took off her mask in my CANCER clinic for 15 minutes before telling us the truth.

I am immune compromised and one of my staff is pregnant. This woman, like so many other patients this year, DID NOT GIVE A SHIT about anyone other than herself. Her attitude is shared by about half of the American population.

I am so tired. I am so done. And, even though 2020 is over, I don’t think I will ever look at people the same way again. A piece of my soul died this year, and I don’t think I’ll ever feel completely whole again.