Volume 3, Issue 29: That’s Not the Issue

"You've got a problem, I think you know. I'll tell you mine before you go."

Here is a button where you can subscribe to this newsletter now, if you have not previously done so. I do hope that you enjoy it.

I’ve never had a dream writing gig, a specific job I’ve been wanting my entire life, one Moby Dick that I must chase down or my career will have had no meaning. There was a time many years ago, before the newspaper industry imploded, that I wanted to take over for Roger Ebert as film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times, and if tomorrow they offered me a spot above the fold on the front page of The New York Times every morning about whatever I wanted to write about—Trump Declares Victory, Institutes Martial Law and Instructs Military to Commandeer All Absentee Ballots, But First, Here’s Will Leitch With 2,500 words on Side B of Wilco’s “A Ghost Is Born”—I’d be likely to consider it. But there’s no mountaintop. The goal is to be paid to write every day until I have to stop because I just died, and as long as that keeps happening, I’ll have all that I need.

But if there’s one column I would love to tackle someday, it’s The Ethicist column in The New York Times Magazine. The column has been around for decades, originated by former Letterman writer Randy Cohen back in the late ‘90s, and it has an incredibly simple concept: Readers run into ethical quandaries in their lives, they write into The Ethicist with questions about what they should do, and The Ethicist gives them their answer. I know that sounds like an advice column, and I guess it is, but The Ethicist has never been Dear Abby. The Ethicist is, or at least should be, less about specific practical advice in any situation—Leave him! Give him another chance! Quit that job! Demand that raise! Get that money!—and more about one central question: How do you combine the theoretical with the practical? What happens when lofty idealism collides with the ugliness of the real world? It is easy to say what one should do. A great Ethicist column argues what you can do.

Cohen always took a humorist’s view on the column, usually more concerned with a good joke than tackling every issue head-on. (Which is fine: A laugh is generally more valuable than any long-winded discussion of ethics anyway.) He was succeeded by Chuck Klosterman, who wrote the column for two years (and made me incredibly envious) and who took a much colder, more clinical, rigorously logical approach to the column, as anyone familiar with his work might suspect. (It was still funny.) He tended to have clear, distinct, easily understood responses that left little little room for nuance or misinterpretation. He told you explicitly what he thought you should do, and he told you why. He also nailed down, succinctly, the sort of inquiries he typically received:

A sizable chunk of the queries I receive are complicated versions of four abstract scenarios. They are as follows: a) “I need to do something bad in order to achieve something good,” b) “I received something valuable that I did not deserve,” c) “I feel a moral obligation to become involved with an affair that is none of my business,” or d) “Is it O.K. to take something if that something will not be missed by anyone else?”

This clear “you asked, and I answered, and if you don’t like it, then perhaps you should not have asked” style was compulsively readable but inevitably polarizing: Readers were constantly yelling at Klosterman. (“What I did not anticipate,” he wrote, “is the intensity of emotion so many readers invest into this column.”) When Klosterman left, the column became, for far too long, a “discussion” between various writers about what, empirically, ethics really are, man; it was as jumbled and pointless as you might suspect.

For the last few years, it has been written by Kwame Anthony Appiah, an actual philosopher who wrote a book called “Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers.” Appiah’s style is more academic, which is to say it is fair and even-minded and thoughtful and, to be honest, perhaps a little bit dull to read at times. But his approach is the right one, I think. There aren’t “right” answers to any questions actually worth asking, and pretending there are is being intellectually and emotionally dishonest. Appiah, being the right kind of philosopher, recognizes that the world is too complicated and infinite to give all-encompassing, one-size-fits-all answers, and that every action has consequences. In a recent question, he was asked about what to do with a friend who has expressed racist views about George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests. His response is detailed and incredibly expansive, ranging from “your friends should be similar in virtue” to “no one is truly virtuous” to “caring about your friends means caring about their faults too” to “you can’t map your life experience on anyone else’s” to “yes but there has to be a line your friends can’t cross with you” to “your friends have the same obligations to humanity as you do” to “if you can’t stomach this person’s views it might just be good for your own soul to let them go” to “yes but then by casting them off you are setting them up to be preyed upon by extremists” to “perhaps you should be one positive influence in their lives?” That’s an exhausting journey to travel, and I’m not sure the person who asked the question is any closer to an answer than they were in the first place, but that’s what I love about The Ethicist column: That any of us are actually contemplating any of these things is three-quarters of the battle. The point is not to have a definitive answer. The point is to be thoughtful. The point is to just do your best.

********************

I consider myself a good person. But then again: Doesn’t everybody? Is there a person who walks around every day and thinks, “I’m going to do everything I can to make the world actively worse for everyone around me all day?” Now, we all know people who actually do do that for all the people that they meet all day. But I doubt they’re actively trying to. I think they think they’re right. I think they think they’re doing the right thing.

This is a hard thing to wrap one’s mind around, particularly when you see such avarice and greed and flat meanness in the world. And I know that the simplest explanation is the canard it’s difficult not to fall back on sometimes: The cruelty is the point. (It’s certainly hard not to look at a twerp like Stephen Miller and think that.) But I do, perhaps foolishly, believe that is more complicated than that. I think most of these people, probably all of these people, are being cruel. But I also think that they think they are right.

There’s a difference, isn’t there? Between active malice and tragically misguided self-assurance? I do not claim to be the grand arbiter who is able to decide who is delusional and who is just an asshole, and I’m pretty sure in the grand scheme of things it doesn’t matter all that much anyway—it’s what you do, not why you do it, that defines you—but it does seem worthy of consideration, doesn’t it? Those idiots running through a Target screaming about masks may be selfish and cruel and shitty (and very possibly mentally ill, a consideration we should probably keep in mind every time we gawk at a viral clip), but in their minds, inside their heads … don’t they think they’re right? Don’t they think they’re standing up for something important? They’re wrong—they’re so, so fucking wrong—but in their story, the one where they are the protagonist, they one they’re telling themselves … they’re the good guys. They think they are right.

Remember that woman a while back in July who destroyed all the masks in a Target store? The one who said she’d been waiting to do this for years, the one who said she is on the phone with Donald Trump all the time? This one?

Her name is Melissa Rein Lively. She was a successful marketer in Scottsdale, Arizona, who had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder earlier in the year. According to a very smart, empathetic piece about what social media is doing to our brains in the pandemic by Ben Collins for NBC News, she had a manic episode. To quote:

Cooped up inside her home and losing work due to the pandemic in the weeks before her outburst, Rein Lively filled the time she would've spent hanging out with friends and emailing clients by diving down conspiracy-fueled rabbit holes on Facebook and Instagram, worsening her feelings of isolation and fear. … Rein Lively said her viral outburst was in part a product of a depressive episode, a symptom of the bipolar disorder she was diagnosed with last year. "It's really intense for a few weeks when you're going through the mania part," she said. "Then what happens is the depressive episode, in which, for all intents and purposes, I destroyed my own life." But in the moment, Rein Lively believed she was doing a public good, speaking for the fellow followers of Facebook groups and Instagram pages who spoke out against masks, calling them "muzzles" and a form of slavery.

"There's just such a lack of human connection right now," Rein Lively said. "That engagement that you're getting on social media, it's addictive."

Does this make what she did OK? Of course it does not. But it is yet another reminder of the signature maxim of this moment: No one is at their best right now. Whether or not you choose to forgive people for what they do during this is your decision, and yours alone. I struggle with it myself. But it is always, always worth keeping in mind.

And because of the total lack of leadership during this harrowing, never-ending, completely unprecedented period, no one knows what to do. They have to figure it out on their own. It can be alarming, some of the things you end up learning about the society in which you live. Apparently American society, or at least the part of American society I reside in, has decided that playing football and opening Hooters is more important than my third grader and my first grader going to school. A legitimate question I keep screaming into the mirror: When there is a public health crisis going on, one that’s so bad that the Athens school district has decided it cannot safely get its children back in in classrooms, maybe having 20,000 fans converge in a stadium on Saturdays is maybe not the most responsible thing for the community in which your university and your athletic program resides? But then again, there are also financial considerations that are not irrelevant to the health, even the survival, of thousands of people. Will having football keep more jobs? Will opening shitty chain restaurants help a family in poverty make it through this? I do not know. In the absence of anyone in charge, we’re all just guessing. We’re all just winging it and trying to make it out alive.

I like to think that I’ve always tried to do the right thing, even as I’ve failed on more occasions that I could even possibly remember. But I’ve never thought more about ethics—about trying to figure out what the right thing to do is, even if there is no right thing—more than right now. We all have to. Every day is a desperate, surely doomed struggle to figure out how to navigate this world, to integrate the theoretical into the practical. The safest thing is to keep my kids away from other children, but what’s having him spend a whole year (or more?) isolated going to do to them in the long term? I want my parents to be safe, but they’ll go crazy locked up for months, and isn’t going out and doing things when they retired what they worked all those years for? I need to get and see people and maybe even have an outdoor meal or beverages, but what does it say about me that I’m willing to exploit wait staff by making them put themselves at risk just to serve me a vodka tonic? And it’s constantly shifting. I’m routinely doing things now that I would have been terrifying to even consider back in April, and I suspect you are as well. There’s no clear path to go down, no rope to grab onto. This leads inevitably to shaming: I’m doing the right thing, why can’t they do the right thing? But then again with that more uncertainty. Our circumstances are different, and what do I know, and who am I do act any better, and I’ve probably cut a corner once or twice myself, and around and around you go. Every day is an endless series of tests that are impossible to pass. The more you think about it, the farther down the rabbit hole you go.

It is perhaps inevitable then that the ones who seem to be handling themselves the best through all this are the ones who do not bother themselves with these questions at all. They just do what they want, thinking only of their own well-being, charging forward unabated. Remember: A lack of shame is a superpower. I wonder if this is why the particularly craven are constantly claiming “markets” can handle situations like this. (In a story that’s infuriating in every way, that’s the most malevolent line: “Free markets will solve this. That is not the role of government.”) Markets, by nature and by design, have no ethics. To rely on markets is to absolve yourself of any ethical obligation. It is an abdication of ethics. Whatever enriches, that’s what right.

But I’m not sure I’m correct, even saying that. I’m not sure I’m correct about anything. Are you? Do you lie in bed at night, looking up at the ceiling, thinking, “every single decision and action I made today was 100 percent right. I am so awesome.” That’s what this moment has brought so vividly to the format: Every choice is wrong. There is no North Star, no obvious direction where you can’t make a wrong turn. Everything is out of your control. Everything is just a guess.

To me: All you can aspire to is just to try to be as thoughtful as possible. Be aware. Be humble. Be uncertain. Weigh every option you can, make the decision from the best information you can gather and hope to the heavens that it works. Give yourself a break. And maybe give everyone else a break too. Your best is all you can do. Maybe it’s all they can do too. Maybe that’s enough.

Please consider this my long-form application to someday take over the Ethicist column. Know that I do not have any answers, and that whatever decision you choose will be wrong. And in the end, we’re all dead. Please keep those letters coming, New York Times Magazine readers. You are welcome for all this wisdom.

RUTH BADER GINSBURG

If you are looking for signs that your life was richly lived, you can do worse than, when you die, tens of millions of people scream, “HOLY SHIT” at once. The death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Friday night was another of those 2020 moments, maybe one of the biggest ones, when you remember that you are just never going to get a second to catch your goddamned breath. Much will be written, has been written, about the political battle that’s about to ensue, about the rank, craven hypocrisy already on display. The fight that’s about to go down will be bloody, and, alas, necessary. (Advice from Ginsburg herself: “When a thoughtless or unkind word is spoken, best tune out. Reacting in anger or annoyance will not advance one’s ability to persuade.”) But for this morning, if just this morning, simply mourning the titanic American figure seems more than sufficient. This woman was one of the favorite writing students of Vladimir Nabokov, and it’s probably not one of the 20 most fascinating and important things about her. I don’t want what’s going to happen in the wake of her death to distract, too long, from her life. Let’s honor her … and then get to work.

Here is a numerical breakdown of all the things I wrote this week, in order of what I believe to be their quality.

  1. The Best Way For Players to Truly Make Change Is Not To Play, New York. As a fan of watching sports, I can’t say I’m rooting for this. But I do find it difficult to argue with the logic.

  2. Is This the Best Team in Padres History? White Sox? Dodgers? Rays? MLB.com. Comparing modern baseball to old baseball is always a fun thought experiment.

  3. This Week In Genre History: Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, SYFY Wire. Never forget how mesmerized we once were by CGI technology you could do on an iMac.

  4. The Worst Playoff Teams in History, and How They Did, MLB.com. This is my Cardinals hope right now.

  5. Is There Hope Next Year For 2020′s Most Disappointing Teams? MLB.com. Red Sox fans, you may find your optimism here.

  6. The Thirty: The Breakthrough Players For Every Team, MLB.com. This season isn’t a total loss, for anyone, really.

  7. Potential Playoff Matchups, Ranked, MLB.com. Just one more of these left!

PODCASTS

Hey, I started a new podcast! Why not, right? The podcast is called People Still Read Books, and it’s a weekly conversation with a book author about their book, the world of publishing, what it’s like to be writer in the year 2020, so on, so forth. The first guest was the wonderful Linda Holmes, author of the NYT bestseller “Evvie Drake Starts Over.”

Subscribe to it:
iTunes
Spotify

I think you will like it.

Grierson & Leitch, Grierson and I tried to figure out what happens next for the world of movies, and we also discussed “Paper Moon” and “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou.”

People Still Read Books, with “Evvie Drake Starts Over”’s Linda Holmes.

Waitin' Since Last Saturday, our big season preview show, with special guest Seth Emerson.

LONG STORY YOU SHOULD READ THIS MORNING … OF THE WEEK

“How Climate Migration Will Reshape America,” Abrahm Lustgarten, The New York Times Magazine. When David Wallace-Wells is your editor, you get caught up on climate business rather quick, but this was a harrowing, very convincing look at how this country is going to look over the next few decades. I always imagined retiring to Southern California someday. I’m not sure now.

Also, Irin Carmon’s RBG piece in New York is an obvious must-read.

ARBITRARY THINGS RANKED, WITHOUT COMMENT, FOR NO PARTICULAR REASON

Christopher Nolan Movies

  1. The Dark Knight

  2. Dunkirk

  3. Memento

  4. Batman Begins

  5. Inception

  6. The Prestige

  7. Insomnia

  8. The Dark Knight Rises

  9. Interstellar

  10. Tenet

  11. Following

ONGOING LETTER-WRITING PROJECT!

It has been raining here all week, so it’s possible my notes back to you—on very fancy new stationery—might have been a little wet.

Will Leitch
P.O. Box 48
Athens GA 30603

CURRENTLY LISTENING TO

“Stop Whispering,” Radiohead. I recently came across an extremely old Radiohead bootleg, back even before “The Bends,” back when everyone was just there to see them play “Creep.” I know they became a more expansive, much better band throughout the years, but one of my favorite things about them is that if they’d have just stopped evolving after “Pablo Honey” and just made a version of that album over and over … I still think they might have been one of the best bands of the era? I truly love this song.

Remember to listen to The Official Will Leitch Newsletter Spotify Playlist, featuring every song ever mentioned in this section.

The school pictures are now taken from 10 feet away from the “classroom” these days, but they’re still worth taking, regardless.

Have a great weekend, everyone.

Best,
Will

Volume 3, Issue 28: Tell Your Friends

"Don't forget to tell your friends. This is going to end."

Here is a button where you can subscribe to this newsletter now, if you have not previously done so. I do hope that you enjoy it.

The 1996 film Schizopolis is a movie about, and a movie made by, a man having a nervous breakdown. It is written by, directed by and stars Steven Soderbergh during a period of his life when everything was falling apart. His career, so promising after Sex, Lies and Videotape transformed the world of independent film, had slid off into a ditch with a series of poorly received flops, and his marriage, to actress Betsy Brantley, was collapsing. Soderbergh responded to this chaos in his life by making a purposefully ludicrous film, one in which the “story” keeps reversing and moving sideways, characters start randomly speaking in different languages, there is repeated nonsensical dialogue (“Nose army. Beef diaper?”), and one scene culminates with the picture of a tree with a sign on it that says, “IDEA MISSING.” The movie so baffled the audience at its first screening at the Cannes Film Festival that Soderbergh, for general release, added a scene at the beginning of the film in which he shows up and amusingly explains, “In the event that you find certain sequences or ideas confusing, please bear in mind that this is your fault, not ours. You will need to see the picture again and again until you understand everything."

I always think about one scene in the film in particular. In it, Soderbergh’s character Fletcher and his wife, played by Brantley, the very ex-wife whose separation from him inspired this psychic meltdown (casting her, and her agreeing to play the part, has always seemed particularly masochistic), have a banal conversation in the kitchen.

Fletcher: Generic greeting.
Wife: Generic greeting returned.
Fletcher: Imminent sustenance.
Wife: Overly dramatic statement regarding upcoming meal.
Fletcher: Oooh, false reaction indicating hunger and excitement!

Later, Fletcher has a conversation with a friend.

Friend: Generic greeting.
Fletcher: Generic greeting. Obligatory question about the evening's activities.
Friend: Oh, qualified, vaguely positive reply. Uninspired description of movie and subsequent conversation with girlfriend.
Fletcher: Ooh, really well-rehearsed speech about workload and stress.
Friend: Genuine sorrow.
Fletcher: Um, truthful-sounding promises of future satisfaction? Enticement to agree?
Friend: Accepted.
Fletcher: Gratitude.

The joke here, of course, is that the way humans talk to each other is mostly empty of meaning, using default words to convey only half-felt emotions and thoughts. Soderbergh, in a period where he’s analyzing his life and trying to figure out where it all went wrong, attempts to zone in on the meaning of all our daily interactions in order to gather the pieces of his life and somehow reconstruct them. He finds them rote, obligatory … and ultimately harmless. We don’t say what we mean, and we don’t even mean that much anyway. Most of our experiences with others, Soderbergh appears to be arguing, are nods and shuffles, two people on their own private journeys who happen to brush by each other briefly and then feel relieved that they did the minimum required to survive the experience. The device makes every conversation feel both banal and weirdly honest. Sure, we’re not saying anything. But we’re not killing each other either. We’re all just trying to get through the day, and we wish you well on your voyage to do the same. Our default words may not be meaningful, but in a way, they are meant to comfort, and even to be comforted. Deep down: We are all just being nice. There are far worse defaults.

I have thought about this movie every time I have had some sort of variation on this exchange.

Will: Hey, how’s it going?
Person Will Has Mostly Positive Thoughts Toward But No Particularly Powerful Feelings About One Way or the Other: Good, good. Hanging in.
Will: Keeping busy?
Person: Yeah, can’t complain. Same old, same old.
Will: Nothing wrong with that. Good to see you!
Person: You too!

I have never missed these pleasantly empty conversations more in my life than I do right now. Been a while since someone said “same old, same old, can’t complain.”

***************

The thing about right now is that no one is fine.

I have caught myself, on multiple occasions both online and in-person, asking that default, “How’s it going?” and startling myself, mid-word, by the absurdity of the question. This never-ending moment—yesterday marked the six-month anniversary of the night that the NBA froze its season, Trump sniffled in alarm from the Oval Office and Tom Hanks announced he had COVID-19, March 11, the night I consider the official start of the American experience of this crisis—hits everyone differently, at different times, under different circumstances. Some people are worried about their parents; some people are worried about their children; some people are worried about themselves. The economy is collapsing and no help is coming, the horrible man trailing in a pandemic election is flailing about and willing to do whatever is necessary to hold onto power (and also is starting to look like maybe he was actively trying to hurt people?), the entire American West is on fire, the kids are starting first grade on freaking iPads, there isn’t a decision you can make in your life that everyone you know (and most people you don’t) doesn’t have incredibly strong opinions about that they’re likely to judge you for, for the rest of your life. Everyone’s aging in accelerated time—my hair is going grey right now like Keanu Reeves in Dracula—everyone’s weight is fluctuating, everyone’s just trying to keep their heads above water. Everyone is pedaling as fast as they can, and still getting nowhere.

There’s an old line my mom told me nurses in the emergency room always say to each other when they’re dealing with a particularly difficult family member of a patient: Every day, you’re seeing someone on the worst day of their life. The anniversary of September 11 was Friday—I wrote a couple of years ago about how uncomfortable it is to watch the requisite Never Forget performative social media dances every year, and this year was no different, this year was probably worse—and the trauma everyone went through that day continues to echo through our daily lives still today. But that was a sudden shock that had reverberations that followed, a clear event that you could get your arms around and attempt to deal with. This is a series of rolling blackouts that feel like they’re going to go on forever. Back then you had to try to find a way to recover. Now you’re just hoping that eventually you get the chance. Every day brings a new challenge, for every single person on the planet … and certainly every single person stuck in this country, with these people in charge, right now. We’re all doing our best. But it’s so hard.

But it has, no question, shaken us out of our default interactions. Who has the energy to be blandly pleasant anymore?

Both of my sons are running cross country this fall, the one sport we felt comfortable bringing them back to play in the midst of all this. They had a practice meet the other night, and all the parents, most of whom haven’t seen each other in months, all had masked, socially distanced conversations in a field waiting for the kids to emerge from the woods so we could cheer them on.

What was remarkable about these conversations were how substantial they were. No one was having the empty conversations of the past—finally cooling off, it might rain this weekend, how ‘bout them Dawgs. We were all so eager to talk to someone about all of this, and all so raw and tired, that you couldn’t help but have a meaningful connection with everyone you ran into. One guy, someone I’d met at a party a few years ago and had run out of topics after about 30 seconds of a 15-minute conversation, began to tell me about his ailing mother, and how much he mourned not being able to see her, knowing she’s alone. One woman fretted about the new private religious school she sent her daughter to; she didn’t want her to spend the third grade staring at a computer screen, but she doesn’t have any friends at the new school and Mom'’s not sure she agrees with everything they’re teaching anyway. One guy, one I’m pretty sure had a KEMP sticker on his truck a couple of years ago, loudly berated our president and openly mused about moving to Canada if this goes the wrong way this November. The conversations were all so real. No one had the patience for idle chit-chat. If I’d have asked one of them, “hey, how’s it going?” they would have looked at me as if I’d asked that question at the precise moment they were attacked by a bear. How do you think it’s going?

And I told them my stories too. How could I not? We were all talking too fast, and too openly, and too desperately. And I loved it. I’d needed it. For years, I’d dreaded children’s birthday parties, not because of the children, but because of the parents; the forced conversation, the rote stories, the manufactured “oh that’s wonderful” when the kid gets the same presents every other kid gets at every other party. It wasn’t the other parents’ fault: They didn’t want to be there talking to me either. But the pandemic, the enormity of this moment, has changed the whole calculus of this experience. I wasn’t dreading having to talk to other parents, other humans. I was grateful. I wanted to share this unprecedented life experience with them. And I wanted them to share it with me. Those other parents are different than me, and from each other, in every possible vector: Financially, socially, politically, emotionally. But they’re going through this, right now, just like I am. And we all felt it … and we felt relief at having someone else to share it with. It was a reminder, as divisive and polarized as this moment is, that we really are all, truly, in the purest sense, in this together. Whether we want to be or not. You don’t choose who you’re stranded at sea with. You just all grab an oar and get rowing.

There was no banality to our conversations. There was only urgency. We burned through the pleasantries and got right to the heart of all of our matters. And we’re better off for it. It is so easy to feel isolated at this moment, to feel alone. But we aren’t. Everyone is experiencing this in their own way. But they are experiencing it. Just like you. Reaching out to them, and letting them reach out to you, is the best thing you can do. I went from spending conversations at parties bobbing back and forth on my feet and looking for the bar, to, now, having fevered, yearning heart-to-hearts about everything in the world that’s important to me—with those very same people. This is because of the pandemic. But this is also what it could have always been, before. These connections are always in front of us. We just haven’t been looking.

After Schizopolis, Soderbergh, having gotten his psychic break out of the way, returned to filmmaking with a renewed focus and vision. His next film was Out of Sight, his best film, and he followed that with an incredible run of hits: The Limey, Erin Brockovich, Traffic, Ocean’s Eleven. He needed to have that breakdown, that demolition, so that he could build himself back up. He needed to burn through the banalities and get to the core truth. It is through trauma and strife that we find our true selves. And we find out that the help we needed may have been around us all along.

Right after I send this newsletter, I’m heading out to another of the boys’ cross country meets. I cannot wait. I honestly cannot wait to go.

Here is a numerical breakdown of all the things I wrote this week, in order of what I believe to be their quality.

  1. Is the NFL Really Ready For This? New York. The presumption that the NFL will just power through the pandemic sure feels similar to the presumption that the United States would.

  2. Adam Wainwright, Somehow As Good As Ever, MLB.com. Considering how bad it looked two years ago, every Adam Wainwright start is now a blessing. (Even if last night didn’t quite work out.)

  3. This Week in Genre History: Contagion, SYFY Wire. As you might suspect, watching this movie in this particular moment is quite a trip.

  4. Why Your Team Sucks: Arizona Cardinals, Defector. I was delighted to get to make my annual appearance in Drew Magary’s column this year, now of course at a brand spanking new site.

  5. Leonardo DiCaprio Movies, Ranked and Updated, Vulture. We hadn’t updated this list in a while: He has only made one movie in five years!

  6. How Are All the Free Agents From Last Year Doing So Far? MLB.com. The Nationals kept the wrong free agent. The wrong kid died!

  7. The Thirty: Every Team’s Top Free Agent Next Year, MLB.com. Yadi wouldn’t actually leave, would he?

  8. Playoffs If The Season Ended Today, MLB.com. Just a few more of these left.

PODCASTS

Grierson & Leitch, I saw “Tenet,” but Grierson didn’t. We also discussed “Mulan” and Charlie Kaufman’s “I’m Thinking of Ending Things.”

Waitin' Since Last Saturday, no show, taping next week.

LONG STORY YOU SHOULD READ THIS MORNING … OF THE WEEK

“How We Got Here,” Tom Ley, Defector. The old crew is back, and Tom Ley, the EIC of the new venture, wrote a terrific We’re Back post. It’s about Defector, and Deadspin, but it’s really about how awful digital media has become and how we might crawl our way out of it. You owe it to yourself, and all of us, to subscribe.

ARBITRARY THINGS RANKED, WITHOUT COMMENT, FOR NO PARTICULAR REASON

St. Louis Cardinals Starting Pitchers I Feel Comfortable Will Get My Team a Win That Day at This Exact Moment

  1. Jack Flaherty

  2. Adam Wainwright

  3. Kwang Hyun Kim

  4. Dakota Hudson

  5. Austin Gomber

  6. Johan Oviedo

  7. Carlos Martinez

  8. Daniel Ponce de Leon

ONGOING LETTER-WRITING PROJECT!

Still the highlight of my Mondays: Writing all you people back.

Will Leitch
P.O. Box 48
Athens GA 30603

CURRENTLY LISTENING TO

“Paradise City,” Guns ‘N Roses. My son William has gotten obsessed with this song, in a not entirely dissimilar way that I got obsessed with it when I was 13. “Daddy, I was whispering this song to myself during class the other day,” he told me yesterday. “I love it so much.” Hoping to have a hair metal kid.

Also, this song still rules.

Remember to listen to The Official Will Leitch Newsletter Spotify Playlist, featuring every song ever mentioned in this section.

In honor of the Defector launch, here is a picture of me on the actual day that Deadspin launched, on September 8, 2005. I worked 16 hours and then went to some Gawker Media party where everyone was having more fun than I was. What a time, 2005.

I was never that young, and neither were you.

Be safe, all.

Best,
Will Leitch

Volume 3, Issue 27: Pick Up the Change

"if my mind starts wandering, it won't be gone long."

Here is a button where you can subscribe to this newsletter now, if you have not previously done so. I do hope that you enjoy it.

Every writer, or at least every writer with a modicum of self-awareness (which is definitely not “every writer”), reaches the point where they realize that they are not in fact the genius and a visionary they had convinced themselves they were. I’d argue it’s normal, even healthy, for every young writer to believe they are God’s gift to prose when they are just starting out, to rue every editor who dares change even a syllable of their beautiful words, to believe that the only reason they aren’t atop the bestseller lists and writing deep-dive features for the New Yorker is because the world wasn’t ready for them, that they’re ahead of their time, that the deck is stacked against them. You need to think that you are uniquely talented, better than everyone, really, to have the stupid gumption to get into this business in the first place. And it’s just as important to have that knocked out of you—so that you can stay in this business.

There are plenty of different ways to have that Awakening, that understanding that being a writer is not like being a pitching phenom, as if you were just blessed with a lightning bolt howitzer of an arm and merely stepping out on the field will make everyone cow in awe. Some people get blasted with criticism the second they publish something and never recover; some people create what they consider their magnum opus and are greeted with a collective yawn; some people learn that they just can’t figure out a way to make a living at this and begrudgingly move onto something else.

Mine came when I read this book:

This week, I was going over changes on the new book with my terrific editor—there is really nothing like having an incredibly smart person who genuinely cares about your book tell you all the things that are wrong with it and how to fix them—when he pointed out a certain crutch I lean on when I get uncertain in my writing. “You get all Eggers arch and ironic,” he said, and considering the book was briefly called Let Us Enjoy This Fleeting Time Together and that there’s a chapter with an FAQ in which the protagonist has a conversation with an imaginary narrative device, I found it difficult to argue with him. And then my editor said something that cut awfully close. “I feel like around 2000 you read that Eggers book when it came out and thought, ‘holy shit this guy wrote this book! I was supposed to write this book!’ and you never quite recovered,” he said. “You don’t need that stuff.”

He was not wrong. Any honest writer has that book, or essay, or reported feature, that they read and realize, “Uh, OK, so I cannot do that. So now what?” Mine came from reading A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. I read it almost immediately after moving to New York to Try To Make It As A Writer, a particularly precarious time. It wasn’t just that Eggers was young like I was (though six years my senior, I feel obliged to point out), or that he was receiving all the Boy Savant plaudits from serious literary people that I imagined I was supposed to be getting, or even that he was a fellow University of Illinois graduate and therefore I couldn’t claim he had some sort of Ivy League foot-in-the-door advantage that I didn’t. (Far from it.) The problem was that the book was great. Not everything in the memoir has aged perfectly, but the audacity, the intelligence and the raw emotion of it at the time was overpowering; the section in which a faux interview with a “Real World” producer turns, slowly and then immediately, into a naked, tortured howl of grief as he stands over his mother’s coffin remains one of the most jaw-dropping pieces of writing I’ve ever read. We can argue about the turns Eggers’ career has taken—I’m still a fan, but it does feel like he has turned inward in a way that’s the opposite direction from a specific and deeply appealing cultural worldview that he in many ways helped foment, giving his writing less urgency rather than more—but I’ve never forgotten how I felt when I was done reading it: I am not physically capable of writing something this good.

What that book did—and reading the work of others, including friends who were just starting their careers out like I was and were also better than me, people like Jami Attenberg and Choire Sicha and Chuck Klosterman—was make me focus on what I was good at. It snapped me out of the dream land and made me get down to work. What would differentiate me from everyone else? What could I offer that other people couldn’t? I decided my advantage was my willingness—my need—to work. Other people could be more naturally skilled than me. But they would not outwork me.

Stephen King in his book On Writing wrote, “It is impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer, and while it is equally impossible to make a great writer out of a good one, it is possible, with lots of hard work, dedication, and timely help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one.” My goal was to write and write and write and write, so often that people couldn’t help but notice me and what I was doing … and hey, if I caught a break, maybe I’d get a little bit better in the process.

Thus, I got to it. I wrote for free for whoever would have me. I never turned down any assignment, including a glorious six-month stretch in 2003 where I wrote weekly astrology reports for a Website that exclusively covered New York City real estate. (“This is a great week to bring your home to market! Your positive attitude will be rewarded!”) I not only never missed a deadline, I typically turned in pieces several days early. When I ended up running my own blog professionally, I doubled the number of posts that were required of me. I made it my life goal to calm and to please the editors and publishers who paid me to write for them, to make their lives easier so that they would trust me and let me write for them more. I am not sure why I am using the past tense in this paragraph. This are my guiding principles to this date. I write more than is required of me, I say yes to anyone who asks me to write for them, I never miss a deadline. I realized a few years ago—a realization borne out of necessity—that my goal was not to be the greatest writer in the world. It was simply to get to make my living by writing all day, every day, for the rest of my life, until eventually I die, hopefully at my desk in the middle of writing something else. As long as this is happening, I’ll be all right. (Even if I’ve lost the real estate astrology column.)

I come by this honestly. The central organizing principle and ethos of the Leitch family has always been work. My father worked as electrical substation troubleshooter for nearly 40 years and never once turned down overtime; we lost multiple Christmas mornings when the dispatcher called him out to a downed power line somewhere. My mother was an emergency room nurse for three decades; my sister spends every day driving hundreds of miles from one sales call to another; my grandfather worked 12 hours a day for the asphalt company he ran; my grandmother wrangled eight freaking children. Whatever you end up doing in your life, whatever field allows you to make a living, you are expected to do it all-encompassingly. Work is a virtue, for its own sake: There is purpose in work, a purity of drive, a North Star to follow regardless of whatever your personal circumstances are at that particular moment. The way out, always, is through work. Work is forever the answer.

This has not made me a great writer, alas. But it has made me a better one, and, more to the point, it has allowed me to keep writing. It has also very much helped me during stressful periods, like, you know, the current one. Writing is not just a place to try to make sense of the madness that constantly surrounds us—it’s a place to escape it. The place I am when I am typing this to you is a different one than the place I’m clumsily tromping around on a daily basis. It’s controlled, and quiet, and it is entirely constructed by me. It gives me order in a world where there otherwise is little. I can obsess over sentence structure and the rhythm of a phrase and capturing a precise tone … so that I do not have to otherwise go spiraling off out of control. I have been fortunate enough to have not faced any deep, destabilizing tragedies in my life, but I know that they are coming, and when they do, I will need work to get me through them. I know that it has been for other members of my family. Work was their comfort. I am sure it will be mine.

I have long espoused this as the only true way to live, the only route I know toward success, or at least sustained sustenance. But as a morsel of macro advice, I have come to see its considerable limits. There is the obvious problem of privilege; it is the habit of those who have reached a certain point in their careers and lives to look backwards and see as work as the only constant, and therefore the only reason, for their bounty when the reality is much, much more complicated than that, and I am certain I am not immune from that. But there is also the question of labor and management and who, exactly, you are producing all this work for. It is one thing to see the drive and purpose of work; it is another for your work to be exploited by those who do not value it in the same way, who see it only as a way to enrich themselves. I have always followed my father’s lead on this, a proud union man who battled with management for decades—to the point that a lockout cost him his income mere weeks before his first child was set to go to college—but never once wavered in his dedication and pride for his job. But telling other people that the only way forward is through work, when that mindset is increasingly used by the wealthy and advantaged to maintain their hold on power, is beginning to feel more like a sucker’s bet. Work is a virtue. I truly believe this. But believing that work will bring you sustained rewards and stability outside the purpose and self-worth the work itself provides … I am not sure this is true anymore. There are many, many questions about America that have become more urgent and glaring in the wake of the pandemic, and this strikes me one of the larger ones. If putting your head down and doing the work like you’re supposed to isn’t going to pay off in the end, where do we go from there? What’s the point of any of it?

These are questions above my pay grade. They matter. For me, though: Work is my only way forward, and always will be. It has always been my only way out. I’m not Dave Eggers, I’m not a phenom pitching prospect, I’m not a unique voice of a generation. I’m just a guy who types, and types some more, and types some more, and will keep doing so as long as you let him. It feels cheating even calling it work, to be honest. The truth is that I’m never more at ease than when I am working, and during a time like this, when being “at ease” is otherwise impossible, its importance cannot be overstated. I was raised to value work above all else, and I am raising my children to believe the same thing. I do not know if this is right. But I do know that it is all I know.

Here is a numerical breakdown of all the things I wrote this week, in order of what I believe to be their quality.

  1. College Football Is Just Rampaging Forward Recklessly, New York. I am not saying that it is driving me a little insane that the local public high school is playing football right now while my third and first graders are staring at a Zoom screen … but it is driving me very insane.

  2. The NL Central Is Still Sorting Itself Out, MLB.com. Little annoying that the Cubs are reaping the benefits here.

  3. X-Men Movies, Ranked and Updated, Vulture. As mentioned last week, I ventured out to an actual movie theater to watch The New Mutants, just for this list. I did this for you!

  4. Big Deadline Deals That Didn’t End Up Mattering, MLB.com. Pointing out that we once made a big deal out of something that, years later, it is made clear didn’t actually mean anything is one of my favorite irritating things to do.

  5. The Thirty: Every Team’s Best Trade Deadline Acquisition, MLB.com. I know the Cardinals didn’t win the World Series with him, but considering the turnaround the franchise made after they traded for him, I feel like the Mark McGwire trade is the most underrated deadline trade in baseball history.

  6. The Thirty: Top Pending Free Agents For Every Team, MLB.com. Doubled up on these this week.

  7. Trade Deadline Predictions From MLB.com Staff, MLB.com. Mine was instantly wrong, of course.

PODCASTS

Grierson & Leitch, “The New Mutants,” “Bill and Ted Face the Music” and “The Personal History of David Copperfield.”

Waitin' Since Last Saturday, we try to figure out whether there will be a season, and what it will look like.

Also, I was on Keith Law’s podcast this week. It was a very fun conversation, much of it centered around this newsletter, all told.

LONG STORY YOU SHOULD READ THIS MORNING … OF THE WEEK

“Going Postal: A Psychoanalytic Reading of Social Media and the Death Drive,” Max Read, Book Forum. This, by my old New York (and sort of Gawker Media) colleague Max Read, is one of the best things I’ve ever read about the Internet. (It also hits at why you haven’t seen me on Twitter, other than to occasionally Tweet out links to things I’ve written, for many months now.) Max calls the urge both to constantly post on and constantly scroll down social media “a Freudian death drive,” and I’m not sure it can be put better.

Also, your requisite Trump story, sorry:

“Trump is Winning the Psychological War on Democracy,” John F. Harris, Politico. Harris remains one of the smartest political journalists alive, and he touches on something here I’ve been thinking a lot about: The actual emotional and psychiatric toll having this person as president is taking on all of us. It’s making us even more insane than we were already, and it’s yet another thing that’s going to take years, if not decades, to fix. It was a very long week, and we have many long weeks left to come.

TWEET FROM MY MOM THAT MIGHT HAVE SOME RELEVANCE TO THE CURRENT MOMENT

ARBITRARY THINGS RANKED, WITHOUT COMMENT, FOR NO PARTICULAR REASON

NFL Teams, Ranked by Appeal of Being Played As in Madden 21

  1. Kansas City

  2. Baltimore

  3. Arizona

  4. Tampa Bay

  5. Green Bay

  6. LA Rams

  7. New Orleans

  8. Cleveland

  9. Buffalo

  10. San Francisco

  11. Seattle

  12. Tennessee

  13. Houston

  14. Minnesota

  15. Philadelphia

  16. Atlanta

  17. Las Vegas

  18. Dallas

  19. Cincinnati

  20. Indianapolis

  21. New England

  22. Carolina

  23. Chicago

  24. Pittsburgh

  25. Miami

  26. Denver

  27. Detroit

  28. NY Jets

  29. LA Chargers

  30. Washington

  31. NY Giants

  32. Jacksonville

ONGOING LETTER-WRITING PROJECT!

If you are one of those people who forgets to check their mail, this is a good week to remember. I got a lot of these out this week.

Will Leitch
P.O. Box 48
Athens GA 30603

CURRENTLY LISTENING TO

“How Lucky,” John Prine. Hey, the book has a new title. This is it.

Remember to listen to The Official Will Leitch Newsletter Spotify Playlist, featuring every song ever mentioned in this section.

Cases are currently spiking here in Clarke County, the highest they have been the entire pandemic, largely because the students are back.

So that’s nice. Masks up, people.

Have a great weekend, all.

Best,
Will

Volume 3, Issue 26: Dreamer in My Dreams

"All good things, they gotta go."

Here is a button where you can subscribe to this newsletter now, if you have not previously done so. I do hope that you enjoy it.

The first time I remember going out to see a movie was at the old Mattoon Skyway Drive-in Theater. My sister was still an infant, and all four of crammed into the front seat of my dad’s pickup truck to watch a double feature of The Cannonball Run and Taps. I was five, and both movies were way too scary for me; I ended up crawling in the back, in the cab of the truck, and trying to sleep. I don’t recollect much about either movie. I mostly just remember looking up at the stars and hearing the dim hum of the audio receiver on Dad’s window, car crashing, people yelling, gunshots, tense music. I had no idea what was going in with the plot—I couldn’t even see the screen—but I still felt transported. I felt taken to the world of the movie, wherever that was. It was clear that the movies were about escape. It was clear they were about getting away.

I have seen literally thousands of movies in a theater in my life. I remember the first time a movie emotionally devastated me (E.T.), the first time I sneaked into an R-rated movie (The Silence of the Lambs), the first movie I never wanted to end (JFK), the first I saw with my old college mentor Roger Ebert (Mighty Aphrodite), the first movie I took my son to (The Lego Movie). I have seen hundreds of movies with my friend Tim Grierson, who is as responsible for my love of movies as anyone on earth, though none since Rogue One back in 2016. I have my preferred place to sit in a theater—typically the third row from the screen, in the middle—and my decades-old rituals, most famously that I don’t like to talk about the movie until I’ve at least left the theater and in my car going home; I need some time to process what I just experienced. I go to the movies often enough that I don’t feel the least bit awkward telling you, nicely the first time, less so the second time, to stop talking and turn your phone off while the movie’s playing. We’re not in your living room. You are in public. We are going through this together.

People always argue that sports are escapism from the real world, but if the last few months have taught us anything, that’s not remotely true, however much we might like it to be. But I have always found that escape more reliably with the movies. Going to the movies, every single time I go, thousands of movies later, still takes me outside of myself, to a different world entirely. I am able to completely lose myself in a movie, even a bad one. That’s the primary reason I sit so close to the screen (and, all told, sort of prefer going to movies by myself); I want the film to wash over me, to take me away. I don’t need to be taken somewhere better than my actual life. I just want someplace different. Ebert once wrote that “movies are a machine that generates empathy,” and to me, that’s what movies are truly about: They’re about walking around in someone else’s shoes for a few hours. They’re about exposing yourself to experiences and people and worlds that you’d never be exposed to otherwise. They’re about cracking open your mind, about traveling to another place and returning back to yourself, a little bit different from the journey. I love going to the movies because they take me places I otherwise can’t go. I love going to the movies because they are bigger than me.

It’s something you cannot get from watching television. I love television shows: The Sopranos remains one of the most powerful pieces of art of my lifetime, and shows like Breaking Bad/Better Call Saul, and The Wire, and Mad Men, they have illuminated my understanding of humanity and the way we connect, and don’t connect, with each other. And I certainly watch movies at home all the time. But watching television, or watching movies on television, does not transport you. It meets you where you are, where you are already comfortable, and it allows you to stay there. You can do many other things while watching television, which is one of the excellent things about watching television. But it is difficult to be transported when you are multi-tasking. I don’t want to be reminded of all the clothes I have to fold when I’m watching a movie. I want to be in an airport in Casablanca, or zooming through space, or learning about a culture and a society that I knew nothing about before I was plunged in and living among them. You never know where a movie is going to take you. But you do know you are going somewhere.

But during a pandemic, there is nowhere to go.

The last movie I saw before the pandemic hit was The Hunt. That film opened the weekend after the March 11 Sniffly Trump Speech/Tom Hanks/Rudy Gobert triumvirate, that day that still marks to me the beginning of all this, at least in the United States. We knew very little about COVID-19 at the time, and as far as I knew, the coronavirus was falling invisibly from the sky wherever you went. The theater to see The Hunt was not packed, but there were people there, with no one wearing masks of course (this back when the thought was that wearing a mask meant that you were taking them away from a health care professional that needed one), and they were loudly chomping away and chattering like our lives hadn’t changed one whit. It was a miserable experience, and I could not get out of the theater fast enough. The Hunt is a bad movie, but all told, even though I’ve seen it, I can’t know for sure. It was impossible to escape into The Hunt. There wasn’t a single second where I wasn’t keenly aware of where I was and what was happening around me. That is not how you’re supposed to watch a movie.

I’ve seen dozens of movies since then, for the Grierson & Leitch podcast and my own personal enjoyment (I randomly watched Oliver Stone’s Talk Radio last night), but they all have been in my home. I have seen some fantastic movies, from Boys State to Hamilton to Da 5 Bloods. But it hasn’t been the same. It just hasn’t. I do everything I can to simulating the theatrical experience, from turning the lights down to shutting the doors to putting my phone away. But I still am never in the world of the movie. I’m still in my own. Our lives keep changing a little more every day, nearly six months into all of this, in big ways and small. This is one of mine. The movies brought me calm. They made me connected to the world. Now I only live in mine.

Which brings me to Friday. On Friday, I saw my first movie in a theater since The Hunt. It was a movie called The New Mutants, an X-men spinoff that has had so many problems since it was filmed three years ago that the studio decided the only thing to do with it was dump it in theaters in the middle of a pandemic. I saw the movie on assignment—Grierson and I did X-Men movie rankings for Vulture years ago, and this was an update for it—but I was also curious about what it would be like being back. Would I feel as terrified as The Hunt? Would I feel safe at all? Could this possibly be an escape?

The first thing you notice in a movie theater now is that, well, there aren’t very many people there. Many movie theaters are open—and while they’re not open in NYC and Los Angeles, they’re open in almost every other state—but it’s clear people aren’t ready to come back, and not just because it’s just The New Mutants. At the University 16 here in Athens, the parking lot itself was nearly empty; I actually had to knock on the front window to be sure it was actually open. My theater had only one other person in it, and he sat at the literal opposite end of the theater as me; I wouldn’t even have known he was there had I not made a point to look. Everyone I saw, in the theater and in the lobby, was wearing masks, lanes were clearly blocked off to herd all moviegoers to exit in the same direction, many of the seats were roped off and there was hand sanitizer everywhere. The experience outside of the movie itself is nothing at all like it was before the pandemic.

But that not the real question: The real question is how you feel watching the movie. And a lot of that comes down to risk assessment. Is being in a movie theater riskier than just sitting in my house? Yes. But I am not sure it is riskier than going to the grocery store, or eating at a restaurant (inside, obviously, but even outside), or, you know, sending your children to school. (For those of you who get to do that.) Of all the things I’ve done in this pandemic, I can rank about 20 things riskier than sitting in a silent movie theater with a mask more than 20 feet from the closest person to me. And I feel like I’m generally pretty cautious. This just didn’t rank as particularly scary.

That doesn’t make a difference, though, if I spend the movie running all these risk assessments in my head rather than giving myself up to the movie. And it was obvious Friday I wasn’t quite ready to do that. The movie was dull, which made it easier for my mind to wander. Did that guy back there just cough? What if I have to use the bathroom? Is someone going to come in late and sit closer to me? What’s the air circulation like in this room? Also: It’s an active time in the world. Has something big happened since I got in the theater? Should I check my phone and just make sure? Escapism wasn’t happening.

But it was a start. I didn’t feel transported, but I didn’t feel terrified either. It was anything but normal, but after a while, it did start to feel familiar. I started to lock a little into movie-watching mode: Oh, that’s a stupid scene; man, those effects look terrible; where have I seen that actress before? And then the movie was over, and I walked back to my car, and I’d done it, I’d seen a movie. I didn’t die, though it was only yesterday: There’s plenty of time left for that, I suppose.

I’m not all the way back. But I can see how, at some point, I could be, at least a little closer. And to me, that’s what a lot of life is right now: Trying to find little ways to crawl back, to reach a level of equilibrium, to find coping mechanisms to get you through this part, then this part, then this part. A nationwide reckoning is going on every day, and as a citizen and active participant in human society, that reckoning requires our attention. But we gotta take care of ourselves too. And part of that is not walking around terrified that everything is going to kill you. You can take every precaution you can to keep you and yours safe: I do, every day. That does not mean that hiding away until this is over, whenever that is going to be, is healthy. That’s not good for you, or anyone, eitherr.

So we’ll see. Tenet, a movie I actually want to watch, a movie I wish to escape into, comes out next week. It’s the next step, the next test to see how much more comfortable I will be, the next little dipping of a toe in the water. Getting back to a movie theater was a hard decision to make, and it’ll continue to be a hard decision each time I have to make it. The movie business is at a crossroads at this moment, and like a lot of things in danger during this pandemic, it’s clear it’s not going to be the same when this is over. It is possible that this is a death knell for in-person, big-screen, mass-gathering moviegoing. I desperately hope not. One of the hardest parts of the pandemic is not knowing, of the things that are gone from our lives right now, the ones that are going to stay gone. I don’t know whether to lament them, to hang on tighter for their survival, or both. I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing at all during this. Do you? How can you?

The world is not a place to escape right now. It’s a place to engage, and a place to fight for. But solace is something we all need, in our own ways. I have most often found my solace in a movie theater. I do not know when I will be fully ready to lose myself in the movies again. But I sure do hope they’re still around when I am.

CHADWICK BOSEMAN

Like everyone else, I was staggered by the death of Chadwick Boseman last night. I don’t have much more to add to some excellent pieces from David Sims and Rob Harvilla and surely many, many more to come in the next week. The success of Black Panther is one of those moments when a movie seemed to augur a legitimate paradigm shift; it’s the rare movie that truly changed things, and Boseman’s inherent goodness, that calm, regal stillness at its center, radiated out, made the rest of that movie possible. For my money, my actual favorite performance of his is as James Brown in Get On Up, a movie that was ignored at the time but absolutely would not be right now. I mean, look at this guy:

I have a suspicion that in this disjointed, erratic movie year, the death of Chadwick Boseman is ultimately going to be the only thing anyone remembers. It’s still hard to wrap your mind around. But death always is.

Here is a numerical breakdown of all the things I wrote this week, in order of what I believe to be their quality.

  1. The NBA Strike Was Jarring. That’s the Point, New York. Also, a pretty hugely historic week in sports too. I did my best to capture it, though I’m not sure I did.

  2. Who Will Be the Champion of the “AL Middle?” MLB.com. To be entirely honest, I don’t think I did my best work this week. I’m deep into book edits, the children still aren’t in school and we moved back into our house after construction. Those are excuses, and weak ones, but I’ll do better next week, I promise.

  3. Where Are All of Trump’s Athletic Supporters? New York. I tried to find a sports tie-in to the RNC, but it didn’t work, I don’t think.

  4. The Best MLB Player at Every Age, MLB.com. I do write this one every year.

  5. The Playoffs, If the Season Ended Today, MLB.com. Cardinals finally back in there like they’re supposed to be.

  6. The Thirty: Surprise Players for Each Team, MLB.com. All hail Brad Miller.

PODCASTS

Grierson & Leitch, “Unhinged” (and boy does Russell Crowe look like shit in that movie, “Tesla” and “Burn, Witch, Burn!”

Waitin' Since Last Saturday, no show this week.

LONG STORY YOU SHOULD READ THIS MORNING … OF THE WEEK

“Un-Adopted,” Caitlin Moscatello, New York. There have been a cavalcade of stories these days that make you wonder not whether or not the world is falling apart, but whether it already has. Here is one more of them.

ARBITRARY THINGS RANKED, WITHOUT COMMENT, FOR NO PARTICULAR REASON

Fingers.

  1. Pointer

  2. Thumb

  3. Middle

  4. Pinkie

  5. Ring

ONGOING LETTER-WRITING PROJECT!

We had a week delay on these that isn’t even USPS related. But they’re coming your way next week.

Will Leitch
P.O. Box 48
Athens GA 30603

CURRENTLY LISTENING TO

“Armageddon’s Back in Town,” Drive-By Truckers. I discovered this week that I haven’t chosen a single Drive-By Truckers song in this segment. Let’s correct that now.

Speaking of which: I made a Spotify Playlist of every song I’ve ever put in this segment. I am not sure why. I just did. Here it is.

I’m not saying the kids need to get back to school. But ….

Have a great weekend, all.

Best,
Will

Volume 3, Issue 25: Just a Kid

"Everybody, everyone, somebody, anyone has to grow up. Let's have some fun."

Here is a button where you can subscribe to this newsletter now, if you have not previously done so. I do hope that you enjoy it.

COVID-19 has added all sorts of new routines and experiences to our daily lives—proper mask-washing technique, the total elimination of formal and business wear, that I couldn’t help but notice I’ve perhaps been drinking a little bit more—but in the Leitch household, the most prominent change has been the addition of some small, very loud permanent visitors to every family gathering. They are Black Dog, and Sealy, and Asa, and Boo Boo, and Dig-Dig, and Turtley.

I have written before about how close my two sons, aged eight and six, have become throughout the pandemic, how they’re essentially inseparable now in a way they were not before all of this. This situation has not abated. We’ve all spent the last two weeks in a rental unit while our house undergoes repairs—an ideal pandemic predicament—and the house we’re staying in has many rooms, enough that each of the boys could have their own room and, if they wanted, their own TV, the dream for any small child. But they chose the smaller, TV-less room with two twin beds, just so they could stay in there together. It’s sweet, but it’s a reminder of how longing they are for connection during all of this. They’ve never needed each other more.

Black Dog, and Sealy, and Asa, and Boo Boo, and Dig-Dig, and Turtley have become their crew. They are stuffed animals who have always been in our lives but have become constant companions during the pandemic. The ringleaders are Asa, a turtle, and Dig-Dig, a dog, likely because they are not just stuffed animals but also puppets, and thus can move their mouths. They never stop talking. They have their own voices and their own personalities—Asa is the wise older sage of the group, Dig-Dig is always looking for trouble, Sealy is constantly leaping from high distances onto the heads of unsuspecting adults idly walking by—and they are with us always. The boys have constructed a complicated social structure where the animals compete, and banter, and fight, and dance, and there isn’t a moment when they’re not with us. Every time I drive anywhere with the boys, every stuffed animal has to go with us, and the entire time in the car, I hear them all playing games and singing songs and making fart noises in the backseat, my two sons and their furry companions, frolicking in the world they’ve built.

I’m perpetually surprised and impressed by the ingenuity and imagination the boys have shown with these stuffed animals; the other day, Wynn told me that Black Dog was running for mayor and had to prepare for a debate later that night. I would very much prefer this goofy land of imagination and creation than having them staring at video games and their phones for five months. But it is difficult to forget why they’ve felt so compelled to make this world in the first place, why they desire it. They’re doing it because there are no other kids around to play with. They’re doing it because they miss their friends.

There is no right time to live through a pandemic, particularly one that you’re experiencing in a country that is somehow both incapable and unwilling to do what is required to get it under control. Every person in the country, in the world, has been affected by this in one way or another, and, as I mentioned last week, this is a reason to try to be patient with and empathetic of other people during this, particularly when they act in an erratic or irrational fashion. It’s a terrible time, and it’s terrible if you’re 24 or 44 or 64 or 84.

But I have found myself wishing it had landed at perhaps other times in my life than this current one. At the age of 44, I’m right in the middle. I have small children whose emotional well-being is of paramount importance. I also have older parents—older, not elderly, just to be clear and just to make sure I don’t get whacked with a polo mallet by one of them later—whose physical well-being is also of paramount importance. I am also young enough that I still have plenty of years in which I need to keep my career and finances afloat, but I am also old enough that if everything falls apart I can’t exactly just start over and try something else. (Also: Typing these words is the only thing I know how to do, unless it’s possible to make a living from competitive Uno.) The pandemic has hit at the age of the least flexibility and most external stress. It has unsettled everything at the precise moment when it felt like matters were starting to finally get settled. Though I guess they never truly are.

The kids, though, that’s the hardest one. While some schools in Georgia have opened, with widely varying levels of success and wisdom, the public schools in Clarke County and here in Athens have not. The virtual schooling hasn’t enough started yet, which means my kids haven’t had a second of structured learning since early May. And save for a stray distanced play date here or there, they haven’t seen any other children at all. The Clarke County School District has released clear metrics and benchmarks to be reached for in-person school to begin, but we’re not particularly close to them yet, and with the college students all back in town and partying all night (and they are, as was always obvious they were going to), I’m not sure when we will be.

I am deeply appreciative of the work teachers and educators are putting in to try to create the best virtual learning environment possible; I cannot imagine how difficult this must be for them. But even if they get it the absolute best it could possibly be (and they might!), it won’t be school, not really. School isn’t just about studying math and science and facts. It’s about learning complex social structures, about meeting and interacting with people who are different than you, about understanding conflict resolution, about finding your place in an outside world that is unpredictable and full of forces that you cannot control. It’s about discovering who you are in a way that you only can by bouncing off other people. It’s about finding your place.

Watching my children do this at their wonderful school, a school we can walk them to from our house, the last few years has been an unbridled joy. William is cerebral but also into sports and physical activity, and watching him and his friends pretend to be cool bros tickles me to no end. Wynn is resolutely, defiantly himself in any possible situation; he started wearing his shirts backwards last school year, just because he liked it that way, and by the end of the year half the kids in his kindergarten class were doing the same thing. I’ve learned so much just by watching them change and evolve just through their interactions with other kids. They are doing what they are supposed to do: They are growing.

There is so much being lost through this time, but that feels like the biggest one to me, in this house. This is what I think about it when I’m starting up at the ceiling at night. I wonder if it would be different if they were 10 years older, or three years younger. To have them away from other kids when they’re in the third grade and the first grade seems the worst possible time. This is the time they need to learn to swim with other people. This is the time they start learning who they are.

Hopefully soon (he says to himself again for the thousandth time), we will get a better handle on this virus, and the numbers will go down in Georgia and in this town, and my children will be able to get back to school where they belong. Everything in this house has to flow from that. Virtual schooling will hold the fort while it can. I’m appreciative our family is fortunate enough to even have the wherewithal and resources to take part in virtual learning; not everybody does—those are the kids in the worst possible situation. But virtual learning cannot substitute for what my kids, and I think all kids, need. What we planned for them to have. What every kid deserves.

Everyone has their own battles to fight through this. Everyone is hurting in one way or another. No one person’s fights are any more or less valiant than anyone else’s. Personally, nothing has weighed on me more during this time that the fear that my children are losing something they will never be able to get back. I am glad they have Black Dog, and Sealy, and Asa, and Boo Boo, and Dig-Dig, and Turtley. They are helping get them through this time; we all grasp onto whatever we can to get us through. But as much as I love those silly animals, my kids need other kids. Every day without them feels like something lost. Every day feels like something we’re not going to get back.

Until then, Black Dog, and Sealy, and Asa, and Boo Boo, and Dig-Dig, and Turtley will have to suffice. I am grateful they are here. But I will not miss their voices, when they are silent again.

Here is a numerical breakdown of all the things I wrote this week, in order of what I believe to be their quality.

  1. The United States Could Learn a Lot From How Sports Has Handled the Pandemic, New York. Why are sports back when nothing else is? Here’s why.

  2. Actually, the Seven-Inning Doubleheaders Are Good! MLB.com. They are. They really are.

  3. Russell Crowe Movies, Ranked, Vulture. Much love for Master and Commander here. That movie is good!

  4. This Week in Genre History: Snakes On A Plane, SYFY Wire. I vividly remember the circumstances when this movie was released, and it was fun to recount them here.

  5. The Playoffs If the Season Ended Today, MLB.com. Cardinals not in this yet, but I bet they’re there soon.

  6. The Thirty: A Player Off to a Slow Start on Every Team, MLB.com. Season’s nearly half over, by the way.

PODCASTS

Grierson & Leitch, we discussed the new movies “Boys State” and “Project Power,” and then were shocked by truly bad The Scarlet Letter really is.

Waitin' Since Last Saturday, we did a schedule release recap show, as if it will matter.

LONG STORY YOU SHOULD READ THIS MORNING … OF THE WEEK

“Joe Biden’s Moment Is Not What He’d Been Expecting,” Matt Viser, The Washington Post. This is a terrific recap of Joe Biden’s political and professional life, and it’s written by a guy who once won my fantasy baseball league. It’s also worth watching Biden’s DNC speech again. I had forgotten how moved I could be by basic human decency. It’s been a rough few years.

ARBITRARY THINGS RANKED, WITHOUT COMMENT, FOR NO PARTICULAR REASON

Counties I Have Lived in, Ranked by the Percentage They Voted For Donald Trump in 2016

  1. Coles County, Illinois: 60.2

  2. St. Louis County, Missouri: 39.5

  3. Champaign County, Illinois: 37.3

  4. Clarke County, Georgia: 28.7

  5. Los Angeles County, California: 23.4

  6. Kings County, New York: 17.9

  7. New York County, New York: 10.0

ONGOING LETTER-WRITING PROJECT!

As you might have noticed, it is taking these letters a little longer to make it to you.

Will Leitch
P.O. Box 48
Athens GA 30603

CURRENTLY LISTENING TO

“Lonesome Day Blues,” Bob Dylan. Grierson was very angry that I had Time Out of Mind ahead of Love and Death on my Dylan rankings a couple of weeks ago, so out of penance, I’ve been listening to the latter on repeat this week. I’m not complaining.

The Cardinals are back. The Leitches aren’t displeased by that fact.

Be safe out there, everyone.

Best,
Will

Loading more posts…