2020: In Review

Every year I write one of these stupid things. I talk about the goals I had, what I accomplished and didn’t. I spend a little time on my sports teams. It’s the report card from a year in the life of me, Eric Reining.

2020 is a year unlike I — or any of us — have ever been through. So much time has been spent talking about 2020 that in many ways it’s seemed to go on forever. For some it will forever be frozen in time, whether from the loss of a loved one (or loved ones), the loss of a job, the loss of a house or livelihood. It’s hard to think about 2020 without thinking about losing something. For the lucky ones, the only loss was time itself.

January to March

My year started with a cryptic text message from my mom one day in January while I was at work. She told me she was in the hospital with the influenza. At least that’s what the doctors told her at the time. In retrospect we all kind of wonder if she had Covid before the shit hit the fan, and everything shut down because of it, but the fact is she was on the verge of going septic. One day during my weekend she said she was feeling weak — what we colloquially call “flu-like symptoms” — and a couple days later she was in a hospital bed on the verge of her organs shutting down.

I honestly didn’t take it as seriously as I should have, since at the end of the day this was my mom. In my mind nothing bad was going to happen to her, because nothing bad could happen to her. Through all my trials, my highest highs and lowest lows, she has always been there. Since I can remember waking up for the first time, and developing memories, she was there. My mom has been present for every breath I’ve ever taken, so the thought that, somehow, some little flu was going to take her away from me didn’t make any sense. Because she’s my superhero.

Fortunately, she spent three days in the hospital and it took her another couple weeks to fully recover, but recover she did. It turned out to be an education for me, since not only did I have no goddamn idea what “going septic” meant, I also didn’t know there was a difference between the regular flu and the more lethal influenza — which is generally how so many people die from the “flu” every year.

The rest of the first quarter of the year went great. In February the Kansas City Chiefs — my favorite football team every since I can remember watching football as a kid in the late 1990’s — won their first Super Bowl in 50 years, and in comeback fashion to boot. My mom was still pretty weary from her stint at the hospital, but it was the last time she, I, and my two brothers were all in the same place to watch something together. They knew how much I wanted my team to win, and they were there with me to watch it happen.

In March, Covid really started affecting our everyday lives. At the casino I work at, the cliental started noticeably declining, and I certainly felt it in my paycheck. March is generally one of the prime months — money wise — and the couple thousand dollars a week I was used to started getting cut in half, or worse.

A lot of the dealers, or casino personnel, as a whole, began regularly questioning why we were still open in the first place. Suddenly, on March 10th, one of the major casinos in Southern California — the one my best friend and I played at when we broke into our gambling habit — announced they were shutting down. Shortly thereafter the dominoes fell, other casinos started dropping out, and on March 17th the casino I work at finally announced they would follow the lead of others before them.

For me, it was a surreal experience. I started dealing in January, 2014, and it’s crazy to think that from the day I dealt my very first card, paid my first hundred dollar bet, killed my first patron and whatever bankroll they were playing with, every casino in the Coachella Valley had been open for business. 24 hours, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. They were always open.

Only now were they closed. I remember March 17th, 2020, because I was on the clock while the casino was shutting down. I was there to take all the $1,000 chips, all the $500 chips, all the $100 chips, all the $25 and $5 and $1 chips, off the table. And people were still gambling, even in the middle of all of it. A woman on the intercom would announce every so often that the casino would be shutting down in an hour, then a half hour, then 15 minutes. Until finally the lights started going out. The security team was doing sweeps of every isle and every row of slot machines. All that was left were a handful of dealers removing all the chips from every table.

I left that day at the same time as my buddy Spencer — a fellow craps dealer from the great state of Minnesota — and as we made our march to the parking structure to say goodbye he told me, in a particularly serious tone that’s not like him at all, that the first thing I should do when I go home is file a claim to EDD. I had no idea at the time just how real the shutdown was, or that for the first time in my life I would be living off unemployment benefits.

But I mean, that’s what I did. That’s what a lot of people did. Thanks to Bernie Sanders — the only Senator who pounded on the table for an extra $600 per week in unemployment benefits — my family did just fine during the two-plus months the California economy was shut down. It wasn’t that I was making any more money that I would have at work, it was that I wasn’t spending nearly as much.

Now if it was up to me the pandemic wouldn’t have happened in the first place. I would rather have just, you know, kept working and for the 300,000-plus people who died from the disease to still be here. Since that wasn’t the case, and since I look for silver linings even where there aren’t any, I’ll just say it was nice to have a reset — from working full-time, from spending so much, from everything. I just tried to make the best of it.

April to June

The most difficult aspect of the stay-at-home order came at the very beginning. Going from working 35 or 40 hours a week to having this massive void in my schedule/life took an adjustment. The first week of not working was weird and confusing; there were only so many things on YouTube to watch, and there were only so many hours of video games I could play before it got stale. My challenge was figuring out a new routine.

So I filled that void with exercise, with cooking here and there, and with doing mundane chores like laundry and cleaning my room. I began working out for 20 or 30 minutes every morning, taking a nap in the afternoon, and working out for another 20 or 30 minutes after I woke up. I started making myself egg and avocado sandwiches to pass some time, and later on worked out strictly by doing burpees — which were a huge pain in the ass.

That’s how my days went. My work shut down on March 17th, so for the next couple months I literally went through the same routine every day without fail. I would spend a lot of time hanging out with my mom and two brothers, and utilized my nighttime playing Red Dead Redemption 2 for hours and hours. It wasn’t always pretty — I would have much rather been at work making money — but people can get used to just about anything. After a while I sort of assumed this was just the way it was going to be. There was no end in sight.

Since I wasn’t spending money, beyond the normal rent, cell phone, car and car insurance, the unemployment checks were stacking up big-time. At the beginning of May I went and got my taxes done from the last three years (long story), and I used the bulk of my tax returns to completely pay off my debt, which had been a millstone weighing me down for the better part of the last ten years. With that accomplished, I felt as free as ever.

That was the peak of my quarantine, even though I had no idea at the time that it wasn’t going to last very much longer. I was in the best shape in as long as I can remember, I had paid off all my credit card debt, and I had found a sustainable way to live while my work was shutdown. I really had no complaints. Life was good.

On May 19th, my shift manager called and said that the casino was opening back up on the 22nd. I wasn’t exactly… thrilled, but it had less to do with working and more to do with the Covid Scoreboard. What I mean by that is up until that point the state of California had been doing an excellent job as far as the ratio between population and Covid cases were concerned. We had been the tip of the sword in the United States.

How they accomplished that was simple: if you went outside your house, or into any business, you had to wear a mask. And with the exception of a few Karen’s here and there, people took the virus seriously. We weren’t saying Fuck It like Alabama or [pick any other place in the South] or whatever. Say what you will about our politicians, but the strategy of closing the economy, issuing a stay-at-home order, and enforcing masks proved to be incredibly effective.

I can say that now, because I went back to work on May 22nd and most of the California economy opened at the beginning of June, and what happened after? Covid cases began skyrocketing. The death count kept going up, and for the next six months (up until I write this) it really never stopped. Over 300,000 people are now dead, and unless something drastic changes when Joe Biden takes office in January — and I have my doubts — it’s hard to say when life will get back to normal.

When I returned to work it was a fucking madhouse. People were so excited to get out of the house again that the casino was as busy, or busier, as we would expect during 4th of July weekend, or New Year’s. Social distancing wasn’t (and isn’t) enforced all that much, people don’t really give a shit about wearing their masks, and it’s all kind of a free for all. (The money was spectacular, however.)

All in all it felt good to get back to normal. It was nice seeing my coworkers again. But it’s undeniable that when the state of California paid workers to stay home, and enforced wearing masks out in public, we did really well. Once everything opened it all went to shit. Given that fact that the United States is the only country in the world still dealing with this pandemic on a massive scale, I don’t know what other conclusion to draw than to say we have fucked up royally. Especially given the fact that when we followed the blueprint everyone else used — at least in California — it worked.

July to September

On July 2nd I got a text message from a girl I used to go to high school with, and it sounded urgent. She was fishing for information about my best friend’s older brother, but I told her I didn’t know anything. My best friend and I haven’t really spoken for like three years, but I still call him my best friend because I don’t know what else to call him.

The news turned out to be grave, as I had suspected given the nature of her text messages. My best friend’s older brother was a year older than me, and even though he and I were never “close,” he was always around. He was always a good dude to me, the type of vibrant personality that lifted whatever room he was in and would be goddamn impossible to say a negative word about.

When the news became official my mom and two brothers sat in the backyard and talked about him, and his family, that for so long I was so close to. It was a shock to the system. After two and a half years and a couple failed attempts on my part to create a bridge with my best friend, I decided to reach out to just to say I was crushed for him, and his family. He responded and told me to let my brothers know how much I love them as often as I can.

Shortly thereafter my mom and I attended the service for my best friend’s older brother. I’ve been lucky in my life as far as not having many of my family members pass away. My uncle died in a motorcycle accident when I was a teenager, but that was about it. I broke down while my best friend gave his speech, and afterwards I went over to hug all the family members and I told my best friend I loved him.

My best friend and I’s estranged relationship got put into perspective when his brother passed away. It’s not the first time we’ve broken our friendship off; it happened when we were 19 as well. But somehow the year and a half we took off back then seems in retrospect to be a lot longer than the three years we’ve been out of contact this time. I’m still unsure if he and I will get back in communication anytime soon, or ever, but I felt like I Love You was the only thing that needed to be said. It’s the only truth I could pass along in that moment, or any moment.

After that the summer months melted away. While I had a some of March and April and May off from work, my girlfriend didn’t go back until July, so her quarantine lasted about doubly as long as mine. I just kept going to work, kept making money, and waited for the 100-plus degree desert days to slip into the more manageable fall and winter months.

I’ve never had a particularly close family, and on multiple occasions — in private moments — I told my best friend’s dad that when I have a family of my own (someday) I want it to be like his. Even when my parents were still together our household was fractured, whether between my dad and my mom or my two brothers and I. We were together, but we were separate. My best friend’s family was (and is) truly a unit.

Over the last handful of years I have had to take on more of a leadership role in my own family, whether it’s pushing my brothers to get into the casino industry or buying a car for my little brother or just randomly telling my mom and my brothers I love them. Even while I procrastinate occasionally for the things I know I need to take care of, it was my mom who shouldered the burden of leading our family. When my dad was no longer in the picture, and when I realized I was the most financially secure member of the household, I understood that my voice carries a little bit of weight. I know I’ll be fine, but I want everyone else to be fine as well.

October to December

2020 has not been my favorite year, or anywhere close, but it did deliver a few positives. I bought my little brother his first car after he got his driver’s license, and a couple months later he got hired as a dealer — which counts for the first job in his life. I know he was super excited that this was the first Christmas he was able to buy gifts for everyone using his own money.

For me, personally, my biggest win was paying off my credit card debt and seeing my credit score jump into the 800’s. I feel like I’ve spent the last three years writing my In Review and saying my goal was to buy a house, but now that I can I’m actually seeing that right now isn’t a good time to buy. So I’m kind of stuck waiting for the housing market to take a dive.

I think the most important thing was just getting my two brothers involved in dealing, and getting it to where they are each stable. My mom and I carried them for the last two-to-three years on just our incomes, but the end goal was always to be where we are now: with all of us working, with all of us doing OK.

My year in review is about me, but it’s more to do with them. My family has had a lot of financial stress trying to make this work. I have sacrificed by not buying all the Ralph Lauren clothing and gambling and all manner of other bullshit that I spend my money on. Knowing how it’s played out, I don’t think there’s any doubt that it made me more responsible. Maybe best of all, it’s nice to know that some plans do work out.

So I will leave all my goals and ambitions for the next year in review. Right now, and in the near future, all I can hope for is good health for all my loved ones through this pandemic. In many ways 2020 was the longest year of my life, and in some ways it’s flashed before me like a finger snapping.

Ever since I was young I have thought — and truly believed if I’m being honest — it’s my destiny to do something great with/in my life. I don’t know if that means making a couple spectacular investments and getting rich through the stock market; I don’t know if that means I’m going to save someone’s life; I don’t know if it just means I’m going to do right and take care of those I love; I don’t know a lot of things.

What I do know is that I am the hero of my own story. I don’t have to embellish who I am, or what I stand for or represent. I’m just a normal guy who wants to accomplish the American Dream. I have always been selfish in my ways, wanting what’s best for me. But somehow I know that whatever I do will work out. That’s why for the last couple or few or handful of years I have spent so much more time focused on helping succeed those closest to me.

I am perhaps speaking out of turn, but I miss my best friend. I miss having that person I can say anything to without any fear of judgement, or feeling like I’m wrong. My best friend and I had what communication theory describes as a “stable exchange,” the highest level a relationship can reach. It’s a truly rare and precious thing, something I never reached with anyone before him and haven’t reached with anyone since him.

I guess it’s kind of silly to say such a thing now, three years removed from regular contact, but it’s one of those that either is or isn’t. I presume that’s the nature of all-or-nothing relationships in the first place — that they either burn at maximum all the shades on the heat spectrum, or they don’t burn at all. Understanding the regularity of every tepid or transient friendship I’ve had in the past, ranging from the short-lived to those that were shallow and boring, I assume you know what side of the fence I lean towards when it comes to my inner circle.

My goal for 2021 — for those around me to be safe and healthy — is clearly my most modest ambition in any of my Review articles. It’s also the most important. I look forward to the new year, and it’s my hope that a year from now I have better news to report.

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