Reflecting on the year

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(Note: The following post contains a description of a scene in The Boondock Saints that involves violence against an animal. If you would like to avoid that description, skip down to the big asterisk.)

I’ve been going back and forth on whether or not to write some sort of reflection about this year.

Here’s what this year has been to me: You know that scene in Boondock Saints where the two brothers (played by Norman Reedus and Sean Patrick Flanery) are drinking, eating pizza, and screwing around with a gun with their friend Rocco (played by David Della Rocco) and there’s a cat wandering around and you just know, based on what you’ve seen so far, that something terrible is going to happen to that cat? And sure enough, after an impassioned speech from Rocco where he decides to take up arms with the brothers, he fails to pay attention to the gun on the table and it goes off. The cat ends up splattered on the wall while all three men scream and run from the room.

At the end of the scene, Murphy (Reedus’s character) stares in shock at the carnage and, sounding completely bewildered, yells, “Did that just happen?!?” Rocco, equally bewildered but calmer, asks, “Is it dead?”

Yes, the cat is dead. The cat is very much dead.

Now, standing close to the end of 2020, I am these two men, staring in shock at the blood on the wall, trying to understand if everything that just happened is actually real.(1)

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And, in the midst of this feeling, every time I think of trying reflect on the experience that has been this year, I think of this:

At the 2003 MTV Movie Awards, the award for Best Visual Performance (?) went to Andy Serkis for playing Gollum in The Two Towers. (No surprise—the award was basically invented so that he could win it. Also: it was deserved.) Serkis accepted the award via a pre-recorded video. What starts out as a very gracious acceptance speech by Serkis is soon interrupted by none other than Gollum himself, who steals the award from him and goes on a long, heavily-bleeped rant against MTV, Peter Jackson, and “the long hours, low pay, and miserable experience” of making The Lord of the Rings movies which culminates in him screaming: “If you think a little tub of gold popcorn is going to remotely make up for everything we’ve suffered, you’re sadly [bleep]ing mistaken!”(2)

What this mostly means is that my thoughts on 2020 are still only so much static and will probably remain so until long after this pandemic is finally over and the next crisis hits but if I had to say something about this year, I guess it would be that this is a year where I learned a lot about my own privilege.

Early on in the pandemic, there was about a week’s worth of time when the administration on my campus couldn’t decide whether to let library faculty and staff work remotely, as they had the non-library faculty. In the past, whenever the campus shut down, usually for weather-related reasons, librarians were still expected to come to work so that students could come to the library to study or hang out while they were otherwise snowed in (haha, yeah right). The only circumstance under which the library was allowed to close was if the governor decided to close all of the other state offices (of which we technically are one). So, since we didn’t have any procedures in place for what to do in the event of a global pandemic, the thinking was that we would stick with the usual procedure usually used for snow days, which meant librarians and library staff coming into work even as non-library faculty and students were being sent home.

Eventually, the governor did issue a work from home order for state employees (which is still in place, at least through the end of the year) so the whole thing became a moot point. But during that week of back and forth when the administration on campus was still trying to decide whether to extend us the same right to protect ourselves as they had the non-library faculty, I felt…well, I knew that the people who run these things were doing their best in an unprecedented situation but I also kind of felt like my life didn’t matter to them. It wasn’t a good feeling. But it mostly went away because I was, thankfully, given the means to protect myself.

I started working from home in March and continued to do so even as some of my access services colleagues were asked to come back in early summer so they could start providing services like curbside pickup. I also wasn’t called back at all when the library opened back up to the reduced number of students who were on campus for the fall semester. And I won’t have to go back until at least the beginning of this coming March, which is when my sabbatical ends.

On top of that, even though my campus is going through a financial crisis that we’ll be feeling for a long time to come, being a tenured faculty member means that I have to worry slightly less than many others on my campus about a long-term gap in my employment or health insurance. (Although, as many have pointed out in other places, tenure doesn’t mean a whole lot if things get bad enough that the university itself ceases to exist.)

Meanwhile, a relative of mine experienced a month-long furlough and is scared that there will be another one (or worse) as the pandemic worsens. Another relative can work from home but her work is closely monitored by her various supervisors. And another teaches in a school every day where enforcing mask policies has been basically impossible and she had to build  Plexiglas barriers with her own money to try to protect herself.

Then there are my library colleagues and other campus employees, both at my institution and elsewhere, who either never got to work from home or were called back early on. Also the people I encounter at the grocery store who risk themselves every day. The maintenance guys who come into my apartment to make repairs. The restaurant workers who make my food and the drivers who deliver it. Also all the people on Ask a Manager who write in about having to choose between their paycheck and their health and safety.(3)

The fact that I haven’t had to do any of that is an enormous privilege.

Granted, that privilege is fragile. There’s no knowing what will happen even after the pandemic is over since we’ll likely be feeling the effects for a long time to come. But still. I can’t deny that I’ve been luckier than most in the space I’ve been given to protect my health and safety as best I can. I’ve been able to do what I need to take care of myself and I haven’t had to make any hard choices. At least, not yet.

The thing about privilege is that it comes with a certain amount of responsibility. I’m still learning how to use that responsibility, donating money to local organizations that help those who have been affected by the pandemic, lending my voice to some political efforts aimed at protecting others, etc. But I know I could be doing more.

So I guess my hope for 2021 is that I continue to learn to use my privilege while I have it, even during the times when things don’t feel real and my thoughts turn to static and a little CGI monster jumping around on a stage with a little tub of gold popcorn yelling about how much MTV sucks (because it does) feels like the most relatable thing in my life.

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  1. I recently rewatched Boondock Saints, which was a favorite of mine in college, for the first time in a while. It still has its moments but overall this movie really has not aged well. At all.
  2. Not everything about this speech, especially Gollum’s bleeped opinion of Dobby the Elf (his competition for the award) has aged well but it’s still pretty hilarious and well worth watching on YouTube if you’re ever having a bad day. The best part might be when they flash to the audience at the end and you can clearly see Elijah Wood at a table with some of the other Lord of the Rings people, exclaim, “That was fucking awesome!”
  3. To say nothing of the people I know who have either become sick themselves or have loved ones who have battled and in some cases died from the coronavirus.

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