Volume 3, Issue 46: I Thought I Held You

"I'm the sky you've been burning."

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.

My son Wynn is obsessed with Calvin and Hobbes. This has just happened in the last few weeks, after I gave him an old book I had lying around, “The Essential Calvin and Hobbes,” and watched him devour it over and over. It has changed him, in some truly lovely ways. I’ve noticed him trying to wrestle his brother the way that Calvin and Hobbes wrestle—just a wild jumble of arms and legs everywhere—he has started asking us to make him a tuna fish sandwich for lunch (“tigers love tuna fish sandwiches!”) and the other day, out of nowhere, he said the word “BOINK.” I assume he got it from this strip:

“Calvin and Hobbes,” like an old stuffed animal actually, is one of those gifts you can enjoy, put away and forget about for a few years, and then bring back out to your utter delight: It’s happy to wait for you. I hadn’t realized until this recent Wynn resurgence that it’s clearly stated how old Calvin is in the comics: He’s six. That’s the exact age my son is, and that the six-year-old Calvin has had an instant mindmeld with my six-year-old provides me immense joy. Wynn told me at breakfast this week, “Calvin is always getting into trouble,” and he giggled like he was talking about his best friend. Considering Wynn’s schooling in 2021 and most of 2020 has involved him staring at the screen at the disembodied faces of his would-be classmates on his iPad, he very well might have been.

Sometimes I will walk past his room, and he will be face down in that book, just cackling.

Being reintroduced to the world of “Calvin and Hobbes,” a place where the troubles of the world are always present but just off-frame, has been, I must say, a bit of a revelation for me during this particularly disorienting and destabilizing fortnight. The last “Calvin and Hobbes” strip ran 25 years ago—25 years ago on New Years Eve, actually—but I find it surprising how much I’ve found myself needing it. We are in a period of nearly unprecedented upheaval, and every day feels perilous, like we must step gingerly so that we do not explode. Reading “Calvin and Hobbes” with my son has … helped. I’m not merely finding it escapism; I’m finding it a way to try to make some sense of … anything.

It is inherently big-hearted in its worldview, but it is anything but mushy, Chicken Soup for the Soul-style fake-uplift. It is fully aware, sometimes too keenly aware, of human nature, and its eternal ability to justify its own base instincts. “Calvin and Hobbes” embraced philosophical discussions—it’s right there in the name of the strip—but was very much aware of their limitations.

I took the image of this strip from an old Progressive Boink post from my longtime fellow web nerd Jon Bois (from 2004, and I know it’s surprising to some of you that the internet was in fact around in 2004), and I love what Jon wrote about this particular comic: “Calvin's a grossly misbehaving child, and no matter how he tries, he can't betray his nature. It's kind of refreshing to see a strip that doesn't feel the need to have an uplifting message, or feel like it needs to point out that it's mean to whack an innocent person upside the dome with a snowball.”

There is something very clear-eyed about that strip, actually: Calvin is smart, and thoughtful enough to understand why it’s important to try to do the right thing, but also as prone to falling prey to his basest instincts as the rest of us. I find myself fighting the losing battle that Calvin fights in this strip every day. I suspect you do too. There is still value in trying to fight.

I also confess this strip right here changed the way I thought about animals. Wynn loves this one too:

“They got Frank!”

But mostly: I’ve found reading these strips with Wynn has been forcing me to live in the right here and now at a moment in history when I very much need to. Every time I look at my phone, something awful is happening, or we’re being warned that something’s about to. Even the moments where something good happens are followed immediately by someone trying to undercut it. (We got to be happy about Warnock and Ossoff down here for … five hours?) There’s a non-zero possibility that this awfulness is not the death spasm of something terrible, but the dawn of a new age of it. I do not know what the future holds. I do not know how we are going to get through this. I do not know how to keep the people I love safe.

But I can, as Wynn and Calvin and Hobbes are always eager to remind me, try to appreciate what’s right in front of me, and how rare and true that is.

Bill Watterson quit doing the strip 25 years ago and … disappeared. He has given two interviews in 20 years, the most recent a wonderful one with Mental Floss. He has otherwise avoided the usual and expected commercialism that comes with having a universally beloved brand and property; he will not even license either Calvin or Hobbes for merchandising. You get the strips, and that’s all you get. They are meant to speak for themselves. That, along with the fact that we were in a pandemic and democracy was collapsing at the time, was why there wasn’t much to-do made about the 25th anniversary of the final “Calvin and Hobbes” strip passing in December. I suspect there are many young people who have no idea “Calvin and Hobbes” ever existed at all.

But it can still enchant and wonder, all these years later. It can be a balm for adults in an impossible time, and it can mesmerize a six-year-old, a little Calvin himself, and spark his imagination the same way it always has. I am beginning to understand why my six-year-old has gotten obsessed with it right now, of all times. They always pick up on so much more than we know. The world is scary and overwhelming. But this is still a world that made “Calvin and Hobbes.” When I look back at this time, I will remember how hard it was, how it felt like everything might just be falling apart. But I will also remember lying in bed with a six-year-old, flashlight in hand, laughing along, giddy to just have a big sunny field to be in, finding it hard to argue with someone who looks so happy.

(I know I just had the whole bit about Watterson not merchandising “Calvin and Hobbes,” and how much I admired it, but when your six-year-old tells you how much he wishes he had a Hobbes, and there’s a knockoff called Regit the Plush Tiger Toy, and even though you know it’s a sketchy capitalist ploy, you also know that when you put it on his pillow when he wakes up in the morning he’s going to scream “Hobbes!” and carry it with him everywhere he goes from then on … well, when you know all that’s going to happen, you apologize to the intellectual property department and just watch your kid smile.)

WEEKLY BOOK UPDATE: 16 WEEKS TO LAUNCH

Hey, a new weekly rubric here at The Will Leitch Newsletter, featuring weekly news, updates and pre-order reminders for How Lucky, my novel that comes out May 11. This week’s update comes from Chris Bohjalian, the author of The Flight Attendant (the basis for the HBO series) and The Red Lotus. We sent him an early copy for a potential blurb, and he seems to be liking it so far.

So hey, don’t listen to me: Listen to The Flight Attendant guy, and pre-order your copy of How Lucky now. Here are all your pre-ordering options.

(Just 16 more weeks of this to go, sorry.)

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

  1. On Never Getting Over the Hump, Medium. I’m trying to stay optimistic and hopeful after the events of last week … but I had to get this piece out of the way first.

  2. The Next Ten World Series Winners, Predicted, MLB.com. A great way to improve one’s mood is to do silly, fun pieces like this one. I got to chat about this one on MLB Network, and even got some throw-pillow discussion in there.

  3. Biden’s Economic Plan Finally Acknowledges Parents’ Pain, Medium. This is probably about as close as I’m going to get to “policy analysis.” (Not that close.)

  4. The NFL Playoffs Are Here, and Quarterbacks Are Getting Milkshake Duck’d, GQ. I’ll be writing weekly for GQ during the playoffs, and this was a fun start.

  5. Remembering Trump’s 2017 Inauguration Concert, Medium. We will never let you forget, Three Doors Down!

  6. Bill Belichick Isn’t Getting Off That Easy, New York. The editorial calendar sort of messed up this piece a little bit, but it’s all right.

  7. Is Scott Rolen a Hall of Famer? MLB.com. A fun collaboration with some MLB.com colleagues.

  8. This Week in Genre History: The Green Hornet, SYFY Wire. It’s weird that this is already a “genre history” movie.

  9. The Thirty: The Longest Tenured Player on Each Team, MLB.com. Hopefully this will be Yadi again on the Cardinals soon.

PODCASTS

Grierson & Leitch, no show this week, but we’re taping our season premiere on Sunday.

People Still Read Books, no show this week, hopefully taping next week.

Waitin' Since Last Saturday, we finally did our Peach Bowl postgame.

LONG STORY YOU SHOULD READ THIS MORNING … OF THE WEEK

“Donald Trump Is the Perfect Leader of the Worst Generation,” John F. Harris, Politico. I know, I link Harris too much in this spot, but I cannot resist some good Boomer bashing. (I still love you all. But seriously, you really did blow it.)

Also, this was an excellent Defector piece on the guy who got the photo of the Hand of God goal.

Also, this was infuriating.

ARBITRARY THINGS RANKED, WITHOUT COMMENT, FOR NO PARTICULAR REASON

Years of Trump presidency, ranked by awfulness

  1. 2020

  2. 2018

  3. 2019

  4. 2021 (if only he’d had more time)

  5. 2017

ONGOING LETTER-WRITING PROJECT!

I have noticed the mail speeding up in 2021, actually. Write me at:

Will Leitch
P.O. Box 48
Athens GA 30603

CURRENTLY LISTENING TO

“Who Invited You?” The Donnas. I’ve been trying to find a good kiss-off song for Trump’s last week. This is one of my favorites. “What do I have to do to get rid of you?
Who invited you?” I really miss The Donnas.

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

I know there are a lot of thoughts about what the next four years are going to be like, and how much time it will take to get over the last four, but … I mean, this little person was a lot smaller the last election and will be a lot bigger by the next one. A teenager even:

Be safe, everyone. I really mean it this time.

Best,
Will

Volume 3, Issue 45: Reservations

"I've got reservations about so many things. But not about you."

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.

When I was a sophomore in college and already a dutiful lifer student journalist at the Daily Illini, the top editorial staffers all flew to Washington, D.C. for the annual Associated College Press convention. The top 25 journalism schools in the country were invited for the trip, and we all gathered for tours of the major historical monuments and buildings. Not only had I never been to Washington, D.C. before, the trip was only the second time I’d ever been on an airplane in my life. I tried to play it cool. But I could not believe I was there. There is something about being in Washington, D.C., that I find intoxicating, even overwhelming, to this day. Every time I’m there, I feel like I’m connected to something larger than me. I always feel like a player in a long-running story that’s still being written.

The highlight of our trip was a visit to floor of the United States Senate. They siphoned off all the students into their individual states—we were paired up with the otherwise distasteful folks from the Daily Northwestern, the little snots who always made sure you knew they weren’t mere journalism majors at Northwestern, they went to Medill—and our group of about 20 college kids went into the hallowed chambers of the Senate to meet with our individual state Senators. The year was 1995, and the hot Illinois Senator, the one everyone wanted to meet at the time, was Carol Moseley-Braun (she later dropped the hyphen), who had just become the first Black woman Senator in the history of the United States. A staffer let us know that Braun would be meeting with students in a conference room in five minutes, and everyone sprinted to get a seat as close to hers as possible. In the back of the room, another staffer, quieter but equally haggard, said that the other Senator from Illinois would be greeting students in the room across the hall, if anyone wanted to talk to him. I looked at the conference room table and realized all the seats were already taken, so I and two others, one from the Daily Illini and one of the snots from the Daily Northwestern, slinked backward into the other conference room, the kid’s table, the JV team.

And then into the room walked Paul Simon. Paul Simon was a legend of Illinois politics, a former professor and journalist from downstate most famous for his failed Presidential run in 1988 and his signature bow ties. If you are old, you may remember Al Franken playing him during “Saturday Night Live” skits at the time.

Simon looked behind him at the room packed with people peppering Sen. Moseley-Braun with questions, and then back at the three pimply children with steno pads sitting nervously in front of him. He chuckled. “Looks like we’re going to get to spend some quality time together,” he said. And then he sat and talked with us for a full hour.

He told us stories about his time as a teenage journalist—he scrounged up enough money, at 19, on a Lions Club challenge, to buy the Troy (Ill.) Tribune, where he exposed corruption in Illinois politics and ultimately launched his political career—about what Bill Clinton and George Bush were really like, about getting to be on “Saturday Night Live,” about the bow ties. I remember him being wistful about all of it, like it was all long in the past, as if it had happened to someone else. He kept telling us how lucky we were, to be young and hungry, to have our whole lives ahead of us. (He addressed most of his answers to me because “you’re the only one here smart enough to be from downstate.”) He was funny and charming and open and ended up asking us more questions than we asked him.

But what I remember most was what he said about where we were. (I’m paraphrasing. I do not have my notes from 25 years ago handy.)

“I get to come to work every day in this beautiful building, with some of the smartest people on the planet, and try to help people,” he said. “I mean, look at this place. Abraham Lincoln was here. In this very building.” We already knew that: Our tour guides had already taken us by where he desk had sat. He smiled and looked up at the ceiling. “It is truly amazing.”

His staff told him it was time to leave. He looked sad. Afterward, we took shuttles back to our hotel and got drunk on Icehouse beers in our tiny hotel rooms. A week later, a letter arrived at the offices of the DI, addressed to me. “I enjoyed our talk,” Simon wrote, on Senate letterhead. “I was once a young journalist like yourself! Keep it up!” I think my parents still have it somewhere. Simon, approaching 70, decided not to run for re-election in 1996; he was replaced by Sen. Dick Durbin, a fellow downstater and the current Senate Minority Whip. Simon died in 2003 at the age of 75. One of the last things he did was endorse a little-known Chicago state Senator for the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate, Moseley-Braun’s old seat, named Barack Obama. His daughter Sheila, later the Lieutenant Governor of Illinois, cut an ad saying Obama was “cut from that same cloth” as her father. It is widely thought to have cinched the nomination for the young politician.

I have not been back to the Capitol building since I spoke with Paul Simon, many lifetimes ago. But I will never forget him looking up at the ceiling, in awe, of where he stood, of the fact that he was there. Of the fact that we all were.

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

After a stretch of seemingly unceasing Days That We Will Always Remember—that we will look back at this period the rest of our lives has basically been the central thread of everything I’ve written for four years—Wednesday became the one that will truly last, the one they point at to sum up this era for decades to come. Whether it marks the start of something or the end is up in the air; it’s up to us. But I can think of no more apt image for this time than this one:

As harrowing as Wednesday was—and as awful as it absolutely could have gotten, how much worse it could have been—it has been noteworthy, and even a little heartening, to see the reaction in the days afterward. The fear for years has been that the people involved with this destruction and madness would, when it was finally over, would be able to creep back into society, even sanitize the cruelty, scrub it up and make it look passable, even normal. Before Wednesday, I still thought that was possible; that was clearly the bet Josh Hawley was making. But now, at last, it is easy to see this for what it always was: Brutish, thudding authoritarianism and just plain dipshit cruelty. And there have been ramifications for what we saw. There are arrests, sure, but there is also some sort of reckoning for the whole cursed project. For all the talk of social media companies shutting down Donald Trump’s various accounts, I found it even more encouraging to see the editor of Forbes magazine, hardly Mother Jones here, actively demand that corporations “don’t let the chronic liars cash in on their dishonesty,” saying that those who were associated with Trump and abetted his lies should be ostracized for it and never be allowed part of polite society again. “Hire any of Trump’s fellow fabulists above, and Forbes will assume that everything your company or firm talks about is a lie,” they wrote. Whatever your thoughts on whether they will follow up on that—or whether you think they are in any position to be ostracizing anyone—they weren’t writing pieces like that on Monday. People have turned. Those of us who have been wondering for four years where in the world these people would draw a red line, it appears to at last be at “an armed invasion of Congress.”

And it is encouraging too that those involved know it. One of the most remarkable details in Ronan Farrow’s New Yorker story about one of the people who stormed the Capitol, an Air Force veteran, is how quickly he began to plead ignorance and innocence the second he got caught. (He was busted by Twitter users who pooled their resources and research to identify many of the insurrectionists; to be fair, they made it rather easy by constantly live-streaming themselves.) The man identified, Lieutenant Colonel Larry Rendall Brock, Jr., gave Farrow a series of ridiculous excuses for invading the Capitol, from “he assumed he was welcome to enter the building” to “I wish I had not picked [zip-tie handcuffs] up.” John Hodgman had the right reaction this morning:

But here’s the thing: It wasn’t long ago—say, Tuesday—that Brock Jr. and his ilk wouldn’t have felt obliged to make excuses for anything. Isn’t this what they wanted? They are patriots! They’re trying to stop the steal! We have all grown so accustomed to these people as part of the public discourse that our repulsion to them has dimmed, as normalized, and people who don’t pay attention to politics (which is to say, most people) barely even thought much about them at all. But you couldn’t ignore them Wednesday. And on the whole, those people, the people trying to ignore them, have been appalled. They’re appalled by what they did, they’re appalled by Trump and they’re appalled by those who allowed this to happen.

Yes, they should have been appalled all along. But they are there now. And that matters. That’s the start of being able to move forward. Many, many more people are looking at Trump right now the way those of us screaming about him for four years have always looked at him. Again: It’s a start. And I’d be lying if I didn’t say I find it, in a way, a relief.

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

The Capitol building is just a building. It’s smaller, and more cramped, and more rickety, than I suspect we realize. It’s just a place with doors and windows and hallways and bathrooms, with weird noises only old buildings make, with surely some strange smells they’ll never be able to get rid of. It’s just a place where people, after they wake up and shower and brush their teeth and get dressed, go to work, and they sit at their desks, and make phone calls, and then go home. Like all buildings, like anything, it requires constant attention or it will erode and fall apart. To keep its aura, its history, its connection to our past and a hopeful future, requires work. It requires engagement. It requires life.

Watching Wednesday, I thought about the only time I’d been there. I thought about Paul Simon, and the reverence he had for the place, and how he felt a sacred responsibility for its care. “It is truly amazing.” Wednesday was terrifying. But it also reminded us of what’s important, of what we may have taken for granted, of what we cannot lose. It seems more important than it has ever been. I do not know what happens next. But when I look up, and look around, I find myself in awe, of where we have been, of where we can go, of the fact we are still here. And I want to protect it. I think we can. I believe we will.

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

  1. On Mary Miller, and the Insurrectionists Among Us, Medium. Big events focus the brain, I’ve found, and there weren’t much bigger than this week. The top two Medium pieces were very strong, I thought.

  2. Georgia Has Been Blue a Long Time, Medium. I thought this piece would get around everywhere all day Wednesday, and by 2 p.m., just about everyone had forgotten there had ever been a Senate race.

  3. Francisco Lindor Is the Perfect New Face of the Mets, MLB.com. I love writing big celebratory baseball pieces, and this is an examplar of the genre.

  4. How in the World Are They Going to Pull Off the Olympics? New York. Seriously, though: How are they?

  5. Maybe the Cubs Are Still NL Central Favorites, MLB.com. It’s not like anyone else in the division is doing anything.

  6. The Final Days of the Election That Never Ends, Medium. Monday seems like 50 years ago.

  7. MLB Teams That Might Not Need Big Offseason Moves, MLB.com. If you froze it now, who’s OK?

  8. The Thirty: Every Team’s Best Player in 2021, MLB.com. Whenever the season starts, anyway.

  9. DC Movies, Ranked and Updated, Vulture. Updated with Wonder Woman 1984.

PODCASTS

Grierson & Leitch, no show this week, but this is the last week to listen to Dorkfest 2020 until we start our new season.

People Still Read Books, no show this week.

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

LONG STORY YOU SHOULD READ THIS MORNING … OF THE WEEK

“Jamie Raskin Lost His Son. Then He Fled a Mob,” John Hendrickson, The Atlantic. John Hendrickson has a way of getting the emotional center of everyone he talks to and writes about; here’s his famous piece about Joe Biden, fellow stutterer. Here, he talked to Jamie Raskin who lost his son to suicide on New Years Eve, fled the House chamber as it was attacked two days later and then went about filing papers of impeachment. This made me want to crawl up in a ball and then go call everyone I know.

It is also worth reading Raskin’s and his wife’s breathtakingly sad obit for his son.

ARBITRARY THINGS RANKED, WITHOUT COMMENT, FOR NO PARTICULAR REASON

NFL Playoff Teams Rooting Interest Now That My Buzzsaw That Is The Arizona Cardinals Have Missed the Playoffs for the Fifth Consecutive Season

  1. Buffalo

  2. Cleveland

  3. Chicago

  4. Kansas City

  5. Indianapolis

  6. Tampa Bay

  7. New Orleans

  8. Washington

  9. Green Bay

  10. Tennessee

  11. Pittsburgh

  12. Seattle

  13. Baltimore

  14. LA Rams

ONGOING LETTER-WRITING PROJECT!

You’re the only people I can talk to! Write me at:

Will Leitch
P.O. Box 48
Athens GA 30603

CURRENTLY LISTENING TO

“Brothers Gonna Work It Out,” Public Enemy. I’m actually interviewing Chuck D next week—this is your reminder to buy Grierson’s Public Enemy book—which has sent me back down the Public Enemy rabbit hole. I was joking with my editor this week that I think I learned more from Public Enemy records than I learned from high school itself. It’s actually sort of true!

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

Oh, and Go Bills.

Have a great weekend, everyone.

Best,
Will

Volume 3, Issue 44: Red-Eyed and Blue

"Alcohol and cotton balls, and some drugs we can afford on the way."

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.

Last week’s newsletter was a year-end recap of all the good stuff we did around here last year, but it was too long for many email clients. (Sorry.) If you missed it or if it went to spam, you can find it right here.

I am not a New Years resolutions person, not because of a lack of ambition but because having a resolution would require a change of personal habits and rigid routine, and that is not how things work around here. You are reading the words of a person who runs the exact same route at the exact same time every weekday, who spends his Sunday nights meticulously mapping out his hourly schedule for the upcoming week, who still uses the same Yahoo Mail account he’s been using for 20 years, for crying out loud. I have my system, and a resolution would be an admission that the system is not perfect and the system is perfect goddammit.

But 2021 is obviously different. Hopes for 2021 are not based in magical thinking. As awful as 2020 was, there are reasons, many reasons, to truly believe that 2021 will be better. It does not mean that the world will be perfect, or all our problems are going to go away, or that hard work, persistence and struggle will not still be required. It just means that many—not all, but many—of the sources of 2020’s pain will not be with us, at least not in the forms they have been, in 2021. There will be more problems, new problems. But there are people in charge who care. That is, at least, a start.

I do not want to get ahead of myself, though: “It’s going to be an incredible year!” sure looks like the sort of statement that would look delicious on a tombstone.

I want my, and our, aims to be modest. But I also, in one last document of 2020, to have how I’m feeling, and maybe we’re all feeling, right now to be down for posterity—to note what, at the beginning of 2021, all one could reasonably hope for in the upcoming year. So here are 10 modest goals for 2021. I don’t need to make a billion dollars, or win the Pulitzer Prize, or learn to fly or anything. As I look forward, here is all I’m asking for, from myself and others, in 2021. If I can look back on New Years Eve 2021 and get, say, seven of these … it will have been a smashing good year.

  1. For my parents to get the vaccine in the first three months, and the rest of us to have them by June or July. We sure aren’t on path for this—it was pointed out this week that at our current rate of vaccination, we should reach herd immunity by … 2030—but here is where I suspect having human beings who aren’t actively trying to break all the nice dishes might make a difference. My parents retired and moved to Georgia to be near their grandchildren and to have the freedom to do all the travel they were all too busy working 50 hours a week for 40 years to have time to do, and just when they were about to do it … a global plague hit and now they’ve been locked in the house together for a year. I want to go out and do things. But I really want my parents to be able to. Plus: I’ve been driving my parents crazy for 10 months now worrying about their safety, and if they don’t get the shots soon, they’re going to come over here and stab me in my sleep.

  2. A collective renewed emphasis on shopping local. To see what has happened to local and small businesses, and how little help there has been for them, has been staggering, if not surprising. It is particularly distressing to see how few places there already are left: We are dangerously close to, by 2022, to ordering all essential goods from Amazon and eating every meal at Applebee’s. We all learned a lot about our communities in 2020, and not all of it was positive. But we’ve also learned how valuable having places, our places, near and available to us are. If they are able to survive this, it is our responsibility to reward them for it.

  3. To not think about politics or the federal government for one day. It is vitally important for us to stay alert and aware and vigilant moving forward: We have now seen just how bad it can get when people this deeply craven are allowed to run free and wild. But one day where I’m not terrified that the people in charge are trying to kill us? One day where I just walk around the world and totally forget about politics and governance? That would be nice. I would like that.

  4. For us all to say yes to everything. I’ve always been a doer; I’m antsy and driven and restless by nature. But even I fall prey to the “yeah, I could go to that event, but it has been a long day and boy is this couch comfortable right now.” We cannot spend a year complaining (justifiably!) about being stuck in our homes and then remain there when we are able to leave. I want to see some craziness, people. Time for that orgy you’ve always been putting off!

  5. To see every concert of any band I’m even slightly interested in. Being old, this is a depleting reservoir, I grant, but no longer will I learn that Dinosaur Jr. or Stephen Malkmus or TV on the Radio played less than an hour away and I didn’t bother to go see them. My next scheduled concert is Wilco and Sleater-Kinney on August 14. If we’re all good to go by then, it will be just the start. Standing in a pool of beer behind a tall guy who won’t stop talking for three hours has never sounded more appealing. Also, while I have you: Please go out to the movies as soon as it is safe to do so. We should all cheer for movie houses, and that viewing experience, to be with us forever. I’m tired of movies I can pause while I do something else. Aren’t you?

  6. To fly, personally, to Los Angeles. You don’t have to go to Los Angeles; this one is just for me. Though you should go! I lived in New York for 13 years, but I am not one of those (former) New Yorkers who has some sort of rivalry with Los Angeles. Southern California is the most gorgeous place to be as your home falls into the ocean, and sometimes I wonder why not everyone on the planet lives there. Plus, it has been, shockingly, more than four years since I have seen Tim Grierson, A.J. Daulerio and David Hirshey, three of my favorite people in the world, all of whom live in Los Angeles. That is unacceptable. You should go wherever you want to go the second you get a chance to as well: Other places are great! But I gotta get my can to Los Angeles.

  7. For there to be an NCAA Tournament. There are many, many debates to be had about the wisdom and safety of playing sports, college and professional, in the middle of a pandemic. I’ve made quite a few of them myself. But, along with the World Series and the World Cup, the NCAA Tournament is my favorite sporting event on the planet, and we didn’t have one last year. We’ve already started the season, after all: Might as well finish it at this point, yes? Am I saying this because this is the best, most purely enjoyable Illinois men’s basketball team in 15 years? It is possible. It is very possible.

  8. Maybe I should chill it with the scheduling a little bit. If any year will teach you that making plans and trying to control the near- and long-term future is futile, it was 2020. I’m not sure who I’m trying to kid here.

  9. For all good-hearted and right-minded souls to buy “How Lucky,” the new novel by local author Will Leitch, out in May 2021. The new year is here, which means this book is about to become a regular presence in the life of subscribers to This Here Newsletter. You have been warned. Buy the damned thing. It will make 2021 better.

  10. To forgive, and to be forgiven. We’ve all learned more about our friends and neighbors, and ourselves, during the pandemic than we ever could have wanted to. There are people during this who have been reckless, and cruel, and thoughtless, and self-centered—sometimes in ways that were actively harmful to to the people I care most about—and there have also been times during this that I have been short and snide and self-righteous and dismissive. Eventually we are all going to have to go back to living with one another, knowing what we know now. I hope that we can do it. I hope that we can gather as one again, to let the past go, to move forward instead of holding on to our grievances. I believe it will be hard. But I believe that we can. I believe that we have to.

I wish you and yours a path forward in 2021. And thank you for spending time with me here. This is a place where I can try to make sense of the world, and there have been no years that the world has made less sense to me than this last one. I’d be lost without it. So, seriously: Thanks.

TOP 10 MOVIES OF 2020

I always finish the newsletter year with the top 10 movies of the year from the Grierson & Leitch Dorkfest podcast, but this year there were a few too many ledgers to be balanced to dedicate one final newsletter to the top 10. So I’ll just list them here. This was, obviously, a weird year for the movies. But there were still some great ones. Here’s my top 10. (Here’s Grierson’s, if you want a good list that is nonetheless not as good as mine.)

  1. Borat: Subsequent Moviefilm, directed by Jason Woliner

  1. The Assistant, directed by Kitty Green

  1. One Night in Miami, directed by Regina King

  1. Collective, directed by Alexander Nanau

    1. David Byrne’s American Utopia, directed by Spike Lee

  1. The Father, directed by Florian Zeller

  1. Nomadland, directed by Chloe Zhao

  1. Boys State, directed by Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss

  1. First Cow, directed by Kelly Reichardt

  1. Hamilton, directed by Thomas Kail. (It turns out: That musical’s pretty good!)

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

  1. We Made It to the End, Medium. I wanted to take one last big swing before the year was over.

  2. The Ten Most Formative Sports Figures of 2020, New York. Making the case for Brian Kemp!

  3. The Ten Biggest Baseball Stories of 2020, MLB.com. The pandemic was not the only story.

  4. Tom Hanks Movies, Ranked and Updated, Vulture. Amusingly, this one caused a whole Internet kerfuffle this week.

  5. MLB Greats Who Died in 2020, MLB.com. There were way, way too many.

  6. This Week in Genre History: Ghostbusters 2, SYFY Wire. There aren’t many sci-fi New Years Eve movies, but here is one.

  7. The Worst People of 2020, Medium. This probably required a more thorough investigation than I was able to give it.

PODCASTS

Grierson & Leitch, no show this week, but you can hear me talk about all the above movies on our year-end Dorkfest show.

People Still Read Books, no new show this week, but you should still listen to David Wallace-Wells about his groundbreaking book The Uninhabitable Earth.

Waitin' Since Last Saturday, previewing the Peach Bowl.

LONG STORY YOU SHOULD READ THIS MORNING … OF THE WEEK

“The Plague Year,” Lawrence Wright, The New Yorker. Lawrence Wright is the greatest on the planet at this stuff—his The Looming Tower is an incredible book—and The New Yorker gave him their whole issue this week, 40,000 words worth. It’s definitive, and it’s also sad and meticulous and moving and infuriating.

ARBITRARY THINGS RANKED, WITHOUT COMMENT, FOR NO PARTICULAR REASON

Georgia Senate Candidates Ranked by Likelihood of Them Winning Their Runoff Tuesday

  1. David Perdue

  2. Kelly Loeffler

  3. Raphael Warnock

  4. Jon Ossoff

Look, we’re all doing our best down here. But it’s a tough hill to climb. It’s going to be very tight. But if I have to give a prediction, this is it. I very much hope I am wrong. After all: I was wrong about where Georgia would land in the Presidential race as well.

ONGOING LETTER-WRITING PROJECT!

If you’ve received one of these, you already know this, but: Sorry about my handwriting. Write me at:

Will Leitch
P.O. Box 48
Athens GA 30603

CURRENTLY LISTENING TO

“This Will Be Our Year,” The Zombies. I believe. I believe.

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

How’s 2021 gonna be, kids?

That’s right: It’s gonna be great,

Be safe out there, everyone. Happy 2021.

Best,
Will

Volume 3, Issue 43: Kingpin

"Statue of Liberty play: It only works once, don't throw it away."

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.

This is the last newsletter of 2020. We actually made it. This year has taken a lot out of all of us—it’s sure taken a lot out of me. I just feel heavier at the end of this year. I don’t think I’ve gained any appreciable weight during the pandemic, but the cumulative effect of this year has made me feel as if gravity has become unnaturally powerful, as if every part of my body has weights on it, pulling me down to earth. I’m graying faster, I’m moving slower … I just feel lumbering. It’s difficult to be light of spirit. It has been that sort of year.

I have written before about the illusion of New Years, how the idea that the next year will be better with this one is not rooted with any singular year being particularly difficult and more in the fact that every year that just ended always feels a little unsatisfying because life is a little unsatisfying. From my big piece on that:

The end of every year allows us the persistent illusion that things are terrible now but both: a) were better in the past and b) are bound to improve. This year was bad — unusually bad — but next year, next year we’re going to get it right.

I still believe this theory of mine, but must nevertheless grant that 2020 was a special circumstance. I feel comfortable saying that 2020 was the worst year I’ve personally experienced … and I say that knowing full well that it could have been worse, that I haven’t lost anyone close to me, that I’ve been able to stay employed, that Donald Trump still lost, that we still got him out of there. 2020 has brought out the worst in people, and it has done damage to all of us that it’ll take decades to unwrap. (The Pandemic Generation is not one I’m all that excited that my boys will be joining.) I do not know what 2021 will bring. But I believe that it will have to bring some hope. I feel as it if already has.

Ordinarily the final newsletter of the year is a bit of a breather for me: I just reveal my top 10 movies of the year (as discussed on the Grierson & Leitch podcast) and wish everybody happy holidays. But this year was so overwhelming, and seemingly infinite, that I thought I might use this, the last newsletter of 2020, as a look back at 2020 through the eyes of this newsletter. Which is a long-winded way of saying this week’s newsletter is going to be a glorified Clip Show. If you only started subscribing to this newsletter in the last year—and there are thousands of you that have—you might have missed some of the best stuff we made around these parts in 2020. So here’s a month-by-month look back at the highlights and lowlights. And a dream that 2021 will be better. Or at least not this.

This newsletter is going to be very long, by the way, perhaps so long that it’s cut off in your email. (That’s what Substack appears to be warning me about, anyway.) So, as always, you can find this and all of these newsletters right here.

JANUARY

Newsletters:

Publications:

FEBRUARY

Newsletters:

Publications:

MARCH

Newsletters:

Publications:

APRIL

Newsletters:

Publications:

MAY

Newsletters:

Publications:

Also, I finally sold that darned novel in May.

JUNE

Newsletters:

Publications:

JULY

Newsletters:

Publications:

AUGUST

Newsletters:

Publications:

SEPTEMBER

Newsletters:

Publications:

OCTOBER

Newsletters:

Publications:

NOVEMBER

Newsletters:

Publications:

DECEMBER

Newsletters:

Publications:

All right, so maybe we hold the top 10 movies for next week.

Honestly: This newsletter is my favorite thing I get to do, and I have you to thank for it. So thank you. You got me through this year. I will repay you by spending most of 2021 desperately trying to get you to buy my book.

But yeah: 2020 is almost over. We made it. Barely.

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

  1. Ten Ways 2020 Changed Sports Forever, New York. This piece is probably the one piece this week that I’ve been thinking about all year. (No offense to George Clooney.)

  2. George Clooney Movies, Ranked, Vulture. One final big Grierson & Leitch joint to finish out the year.

  3. Ten Things That Happened in January and February This Year That You’ve Already Forgotten About, Medium. I’m a terrible citizen, but I had completely lost the thread on the whole Iranian Guard thing.

  4. Year in Review: Five Players Who Rebounded in 2020, MLB.com. I actually love writing end of year content. I think years should end all the time! (Especially this one.)

  5. Pixar Movies, Ranked and Updated, Vulture. With Soul.

  6. The Final Five People Who Made 2020 Tolerable, Medium. The last one of these. Rubrics!

  7. The Thirty: One Holiday Wish For All 30 Teams, MLB.com. An obvious end-of-year bit here.

PODCASTS

Grierson & Leitch, a big podcast week, the biggest really. Three shows. The first, we discuss (deep breath) Wonder Woman 1984, Soul, The Father, News of the World, Promising Young Woman, One Night in Miami, Small Axe: Education and The Midnight Sky. Then I had my big yearly conversation with Tommy Craggs. But the big one was Dorkfest 2020, our now nearly 30-year tradition of going through our Top Ten Movies of the Year. That show is good for the soul.

People Still Read Books, no new show this week, but you should still listen to David Wallace-Wells about his groundbreaking book The Uninhabitable Earth.

Waitin' Since Last Saturday, no show this week.

LONG STORY YOU SHOULD READ THIS MORNING … OF THE WEEK

“Who Did J.K. Rowling Become?” Molly Fischer, New York. I have been waiting for a deep dive about what exactly happened to J.K. Rowling. This is the story I was waiting for.

ARBITRARY THINGS RANKED, WITHOUT COMMENT, FOR NO PARTICULAR REASON

Beginning of Decade Years of My Life, Ranked

  1. 2010

  2. 1980

  3. 2000

  4. 1990

  5. 2020

ONGOING LETTER-WRITING PROJECT!

The upcoming week is probably the slowest of my entire year, so the time to get a rapid response is right now. Write me at:

Will Leitch
P.O. Box 48
Athens GA 30603

CURRENTLY LISTENING TO

“Shameika,” Fiona Apple. Craig Jenkins, along with Steven Hyden my favorite music critic, wrote thatFetch the Bolt Cutters supposes life is the summation of the sweets and the bitters and scatters both into the same dish.” That is exactly right. Also, I love the story behind this song, and the story that resulted from it.

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

This is one of the last photos I took before the pandemic hit.

We will be there again. Be safe, everyone. I’ll see you in 2021.

Best,
Will

Volume 3, Issue 42: An Empty Corner

"The silver black boot that cracked my front tooth is a new kind of truth I'm getting used to."

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.

In 1989, the men’s basketball coaches at the University of Illinois and the University of Iowa were recruiting a powerful, unusually skilled center from Chicago Simeon High School named Deon Thomas. It was a heated recruitment between two conference rivals, but, eventually, Thomas chose Illinois, as had many Simeon players, including Nick Anderson, Ervin Small and the late great Ben Wilson, the national player of the year in 1984 and the subject of the deeply sad ESPN 30 for 30 documentary Benji. The lead recruiter for Iowa was an ambitious assistant desperate to make his mark in the business, a 29-year-old named Bruce Pearl.

Pearl, frustrated that he’d lost out on such a valued recruit, called Thomas and confronted him with a rumor that he’d either heard or concocted himself out of thin air. Pearl claimed that Thomas came to Illinois because Illinois assistant coach Jimmy Collins—a former Cook County probation officer and Chicago youth league basketball coach with deep ties to the Chicago high school basketball scene who had become Lou Henson’s longtime right-hand man (and had had a personal mentorship since childhood with Benji Wilson)—had offered Thomas a Chevy Blazer. Thomas, who was an 18-year-old high school senior at the time, had grown frustrated and exhausted with Pearl’s constant calls and had hoped they would stop once his recruitment was over. Eager to get off the phone (as reported by Deadspin years later, “Pearl had put in nine calls to Thomas in the previous 48 hours”), Thomas, on the third asking about the Blazer story, said, “yeah, somewhat.” In an interview later that year, Thomas said “I was just trying to get him off the phone.”

It turned out that Pearl was taping the phone call, and he immediately submitted the tape to the NCAA along with breathless claims of Jimmy Collins’ corruption. A years-long investigation ensued, and while the accusations of free Blazers were proven entirely false, the damage was done. Thomas was forced to sit out his freshman season as the NCAA investigated the charges, Illinois was slapped with a vague “lack of institutional control” and banned from the NCAA tournament for two seasons and stripped of scholarships and, more than anything else, the reputation of Jimmy Collins was ruined. Collins had long been thought to be Illinois coach Lou Henson’s successor-in-waiting, but after the scandal, the word “Blazer” was forever attached to his name. Collins was certain Pearl’s baseless accusations was the reason he missed out on the Illinois job when Henson retired, and many others. From the 2011 Deadspin piece:

"The reason it impacted me so much was the longer it went on the longer I was finding out tidbits," Collins said. "They were really causing me to try to lose my job, my livelihood, the way to feed my family. That's why it hurt so bad, because I knew it wasn't true, and I knew that they knew it wasn't true. … In Champaign, all the people down there know it didn't happen. But the further I get away from Champaign, I get people saying, 'Ah man, how you doing? It's so good to see you beat that case.' I [worked in] the probation department for seven years and when you beat the case, it means they didn't have something on you to prove that you did it — but you did it and you got away with it."

It followed Collins, and Thomas, wherever they went, which was particularly galling as they watched Pearl, as the years went on, become a successful coach at Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Tennessee and now Auburn (as well as a charismatic television personality). Meanwhile, Collins coached at tiny Illinois-Chicago the rest of his career, unable to move forward, or move away, from the Pearl incident. Collins once told an interviewer that there wasn’t a day in his life that someone didn’t bring up the Pearl-Thomas incident."It's a con man's game, and he's running it,” Collins said.

It turns out that Thomas’ relationship with Collins was about more than just a fictional Bronco. The two men were best friends, with Thomas, like so many basketball players before him, considering Collins a mentor and a father figure. “He taught me how to be married to my wife, how to be a husband and father,” Thomas told the Chicago Sun-Times. “I didn’t grow up with a dad. My mother and stepfather got divorced. But here I am, married 22 years, kids doing great. Coach Collins was able to make me see what was possible not only in basketball but in my life.”

Pearl reportedly ran into Collins at the Final Four 23 years after the incident and apologized. Thomas didn’t buy it, seeing Pearl as a uniquely malevolent figure, saying, “It’s kind of hard to forgive a snake. I don’t want to really use the word, but he’s evil.” Thomas later took the high road, saying he “wished [Pearl] the best.” But he and Collins had to relive the whole thing with every Auburn win, or every Pearl ESPN appearance, even after Pearl was briefly banned from college basketball after a career of shady behavior. It never went away. One lie, one decision by a young assistant trying to get ahead, and it stuck to everyone caught up in its wake, the rest of their lives.

Last Sunday morning, Jimmy Collins died at the age of 74, leaving behind a wife of nearly 50 years and four children. Tributes poured in from all across the country. But of course everyone wanted to hear from Thomas.

On WDWS Radio in Champaign, longtime Champaign News-Gazette columnist Loren Tate, still hosting his weekly radio show at the age of 89, had Thomas on to discuss Collins’ life and legacy. I have clipped the audio from that interview, because you really should listen to it.

Here’s what Thomas said, through tears:

I want everyone to know, Coach [Collins] and I have been attached at the hip since all of that stuff started. For anyone that’s listening, understand what the truth is: That man never did anything wrong. Nothing. I’m reading an article that came out yesterday, and they’re praising him at the beginning, then you throw that [Pearl] crap in there, and that man never did anything wrong. They allowed a lie to follow him around and tarnish his reputation for years. He was special. People need to know that. And understand that.

Thirty-one years later, one decision, one lie, still lingers, still hurts, still lasts, even on a man’s death bed, even as his closest friend tries to say goodbye.

*********************
One of the hard parts of wrapping your minds around this particular moment in history is trying to figure out how those who perpetuated it, and did nothing to stop it, will be judged. As rats abandon the sinking ship, with only the most desperate and corrupt left, there will eventually be attempts, when this is over, to rejoin the rest of us in polite society—this, after all, is part of the grift too. They’ll try to normalize their behavior and cravenness, to excuse it, to distance themselves from it. There are people who still, to this very second, with 3,600 people dying every day, are attempting to deny the seriousness of the pandemic and obstruct those attempting to fight it. Someday, maybe someday soon, this pandemic will be over, and there will be an accounting, a reckoning. We can be empathetic to those who have fallen prey to their avarice, but, if there is ever any sort of normality even possible after this, we must make sure to never let these people back into it. (And here’s a handy list of them. For your fridge.) I say this not as a matter of vengeance but as a matter of justice: There must be ramifications for those who might someday try to pull this shit again.

But, really, the damage has already been done. That’s what I thought, listening to Deon Thomas weep through my headphones: There is no fixing this.

That was one lie, just one, just one opportunistic moment from someone who had only his own interests in mind and didn’t care what happened to anyone else because he wanted what he wanted. And that lie affected lives forever. Thirty years later, a man died full of regrets and unfulfilled dreams, with his reputation still bleeding, all because of that one lie. One lie can change everything. One lie can destroy an entire life.

What do thousands of lies do? What does an endless parade of lies, a cascading cavalcade of lies, just an eternal stream of bullshit … what does that do?

I would love to believe that—while we will look back at this time with sadness, anger, frustration and despair—we will in fact be able to look back upon it. Because to look back upon it will mean that it is over. I would love to believe that it will be a dark, awful period in a history, sure, but one we can tie up and place neatly away, in some storage space where we can hide from it, claim it’s something we can all move on from. I would love to believe that at some point we’ll be finished with it.

But I’m worried that’s not how any of this works. The results of the lies, the ramifications of this time, will reverberate for the rest of our lives, and surely the rest of our children’s lives. There are people who were destroyed by this time, by these people, who will never recover. It will be 30 years in the future, as they lie dying, and they will still be thinking about what happened to them and the people they loved and the world they cared about back in 2020, the years before, how their lives were just never quite the same after that.

We are so close to taking the first small step in being able to move on from this. Vaccines are coming, vaccines are here, Trump is leaving. But we’ll never truly move on from this. I have found much hope of late, considerable optimism that the fever is breaking, that we might make it through this, that road back will be difficult and grueling but also passable, and possible. But we won’t be able to shut a door on this. We can’t stow it in a warehouse someday. and move on. We’ll have to live with it forever.

Bruce Pearl may have meant his apology to Jimmy Collins; he may have even believed it. But it doesn’t really matter. Jimmy Collins still was shattered from what happened to him, and he and the people who loved him never truly healed. It will take us decades to fix what has been broken. We’ll never get to all of it. I’m afraid we won’t even come close.

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

  1. How Not to Behave in a Pandemic, Medium. This was not actually the strongest writing week. I’m in final, final book edits, and it’s the last week before Christmas, and … there’s just a lot of balls in the air. Didn’t quite feel on my game this week.

  2. What If Cleveland Would Have Scored Off Aroldis Chapman in the Ninth Inning of Game Seven of the 2016 World Series? MLB.com. I enjoyed this one because it allowed me to imagine the Cubs not winning the World Series.

  3. Steven Soderbergh Movies, Ranked and Updated, Vulture. With Let Them All Talk and The Laundromat.

  4. Meryl Streep Movies, Ranked and Updated, Vulture. With Let Them All Talk and The Prom.

  5. What Cleveland Changing Its Baseball Team’s Name Means, New York. I have been writing on this topic since I was a freshman in college. I will confess to growing a bit tired of it.

  6. Getting to Know Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, Medium. Made sure to get this done this week.

  7. The Thirty: Picking a Future Hall of Famer Off Every Current Roster, MLB.com. Discussed this one on MLB Network. How’s my Room Rater?

  8. Five More People Who Got Us Through 2020, Medium. This series will be done soon.

PODCASTS

Grierson & Leitch, we discuss the Minari, The Prom. Let Them All Talk and Small Axe: Alex Wheatle.

People Still Read Books, talking with David Wallace-Wells about his groundbreaking book The Uninhabitable Earth.

Waitin' Since Last Saturday, reviewing the Missouri game, previewing nothing.

LONG STORY YOU SHOULD READ THIS MORNING … OF THE WEEK

“How Science Beat the Virus,” Ed Yong, The Atlantic. Ed Yong has been the most essential reporter throughout the pandemic, so of course he has the definitive piece about how the vaccines came about.

ARBITRARY THINGS RANKED, WITHOUT COMMENT, FOR NO PARTICULAR REASON

My Favorite Movies of Each Year of the Last Ten Years, Ranked by My Desire to Watch Them Right Now, This Very Second, in 2020

  1. Boyhood (2014)

  2. Toy Story 3 (2010)

  3. Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

  4. Roma (2018)

  5. Dunkirk (2017)

  6. O.J.: Made in America (2016)

  7. 12 Years a Slave (2013)

  8. Uncut Gems (2019)

  9. Timbuktu (2015)

  10. Midnight in Paris (2011)

(We’re taping Dorkfest on Monday night, by the way.)

ONGOING LETTER-WRITING PROJECT!

It’ll take four months to get here, apparently, but send ‘em anyway. Write me at:

Will Leitch
P.O. Box 48
Athens GA 30603

CURRENTLY LISTENING TO

“Country Feedback (Live From The National Bowl, Milton Keynes / 1995)” R.E.M. I’ve been listening to the “R.E.M. at the BBC” collection on Spotify all week, and 1992 Will Leitch, who thought “Country Feedback” was his favorite R.E.M. song, very much appreciates that every time Michael Stipe sings this song on this collection, he says, “This is our favorite song.”

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

Also, this is Illinois’ new football coach:

Go Illini!

Be safe, everyone.

Best,
Will

Loading more posts…