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The virus, the riots, the election: The unforgettable 2020

Remember the 'Dumpster fire' of 2016? This year was far hotter. Many of us suffered; some found ways to beat the heat.

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Editor’s note: This is the first of a 13-day series that looks at all the ways 2020 has changed us. From now until 2021, expect stories on workplace and education, sports, economics, politics and everything in between.

ROCHESTER, Minn. — In 2016, an association of professional linguists chose as its “Word of the Year” a term they felt vividly captured the sense of year’s top news, which included all too many terrorist attacks and mass shootings, the bitter Brexit vote, a demoralizing string of beloved celebrities’ deaths and, of course, probably the most caustic and degrading presidential election campaign of our lives (at least, yet).

The term they chose? “ Dumpster fire .”

Ah, 2016. A better time. A simpler time.

If four years ago was a Dumpster fire (sorry, “mobile trash container” — spare me your wrath, copyright-defenders ), what would you call this 37-month circuit around the sun that we have just about completed in 2020? A landfill fire? A California wildfire ? A blazing oil slick? A supernova?


The story of this unforgettable year is told in our year-end report, "The 2020 Project: The Year That Changed Us." It features contributions from Forum Communications Co. journalists across Minnesota and the Upper Midwest, stories that in the coming days will explain what happened in workplaces, in health care, in business, in politics, in sports and entertainment, and in our families, too.

SPECIAL COVERAGE: The 2020 Project: The Year That Changed Us

What went wrong this year? Let us count the ways. More than 3.5 million Americans are out of work . A worldwide economic slump will affect us all for years to come. U.S. cities burned — there’s that fire again — in the aftermath of a horrifying video seen around the world, showing a Black man dying under the knee of a white police officer in Minneapolis.

Some families aren’t talking anymore, a product of the political polarization and mutual distrust that’s bedeviled our society for decades. It reached new highs — or rather, lows — in the run-up to this year’s U.S. elections and the contentious weeks since.

And then there are the dead. More than 300,000 Americans, and 1.5 million worldwide , are the casualties of a heretofore unknown virus called COVID-19. What a fire this has been. Even in our remote and normally peaceful flyover part of the world, as winter settles in, we’re still feeling the heat. In fact, in terms of spreading the coronavirus, our region closed out the year among the hottest of global hot spots, a sea of red on a national map where you’d rather find yourself pale as the average North Dakotan.

Jeff Pieters.jpg
Jeff Pieters

These are the big trends. Stories of the world. Broad strokes. Maybe, though, you measure your year by the granular moments, small and large, that detailed it for you and your immediate group:


  • Like that time you waited in a long line for a bag of canned foods, all because, like so many others, you’d lost your job when your office closed.
  • Like that time you watched the nightly news, and a sensation of fear and outrage closed in on you to the point that you felt you could hardly speak.
  • Like the many times you were left to feel helpless and alone, wondering how the tiniest virus could bring the mightiest nation to its knees.
  • Like the many times you longed for a simple Friday night dinner-and-movie with your spouse, or held tickets for a flight, a concert or a ballgame — a memory — that won’t be made, not now.
  • Like the time you sat at a Thanksgiving table set for 10, and only two of you are present to pick up forks and eat.

Is that the story of your year? Or could there be more?

  • Like this: The time you, a volunteer, packaged food and set it in the trunk of a stranger’s car at the food shelf, offering a wink and a wave to them as they pulled away, hopefully reminding them that we’re all in this together.
  • Or like this: The new hobby you learned, the 10,000 daily steps you took, the reconnection with long-lost friends in a videoconference happy hour, all efforts to redirect your thoughts from hopelessness to hope.
  • Or like this: The slowdown that halted the craze of our lives, teaching us a lesson about the pointlessness of this ceaseless pursuit of … what? — and offering us a glimpse of another, more purposeful way to live.
  • Or like this: Cocooning with our families in the home-work-school environment. At night, the sounds of dice on a game board, the lights of old home movies flickering over your children’s faces as they fall asleep. Dinner conversations over home-cooked meals. The value of that handful of friends we allowed in our “bubble.” And have the pets ever had it so good?
  • Or like this: The realization that despite everything so many other people have lost — or, in fact, maybe that you yourself have lost —there are still so many blessings to be thankful for, more than we often realize. Not least of which are our still-living family members and friends, and the prospect of sharing many holiday dinners with them in the years to come.

Yes, the world was on fire this year. But many times when there’s a fire, you’ll find somebody whose attitude is: Where are the marshmallows?
Did you toast any marshmallows this year? It’s not too late.

I risk telling this story that will either horrify and offend you, or it will make you laugh … and maybe a healthy bit of both. In Rochester on Dec. 18, a group held an unusual public event. It was a 1-year birthday party for the coronavirus . Yes, a party. And the people who attended were encouraged to salute the occasion by holding up one finger to the birthday virus. I’ll leave you to guess which finger.

It’s vulgar, and I’m sorry for that, but can you honestly think of a more fitting salute with which to send off this unforgettably horrible and utterly disorienting year?

Or, a better question: What salute will you use to welcome in the new one?

Jeff Pieters is editor of the Rochester Post Bulletin.



SPECIAL COVERAGE: The 2020 Project: The Year That Changed Us

Jeff Pieters is editor of the Post Bulletin. He joined the staff as a reporter in 2001, and has been editor since 2019. Readers can reach Jeff at 507-285-7748 or jpieters@postbulletin.com.
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