Volume 3, Issue 82: Passenger Side

"You're going to make me spill my beer if you don't learn how to steer."

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The first time I ever smoked weed I couldn’t find my way out of the kitchen. It was my sophomore year of college, and a bunch of the older newspaper staffers were having a party at their apartment just across the street from the Daily Illini. The associate sports editor, whose job I wanted, was the sort of friendly guy who was always trying to extol upon you the myriad uses of hemp—“You can, like, make rope with it”—and named his fantasy baseball team the “Leesville Leafsmokers.” I sort of miss having people like that in my life, people who the only real thing anybody knew about them was “guy who just smokes weed all the time.” I must have known about 20 of those guys in college.

I’d only had the first sip of alcohol in my life a couple of months earlier, and I’d found my sea legs pretty quickly there. But I wasn’t particularly curious about marijuana. Even at 20, I was ambitious and hungry and eager to create and work, and the last thing I wanted was any sort of distraction from that. (The weed guys all seemed, uh, to get distracted easily.) But we were at the seniors’ apartment, and I wanted their approval and their assignments and ultimately their jobs, so when the associate sports editor offered me a hit from his tan plastic bong with a Cubs sticker on the side, I did not say no. All I remember is the coughing, and everybody laughing at the downstate farm kid with the center part and his coughing, but then I gave it another try and next thing you knew I was stuck in the kitchen. It wasn’t that I couldn’t move. It was that I couldn’t remember how I’d gotten in there, which made it impossible to retrace my steps to discover the correct way to get out. There had to have been a door somewhere, right? What kind of apartment is designed where there’s no escape from the kitchen? Maybe someone hid it? Maybe I was just beamed here?

In the years after my successful extraction from the kitchen, weed would become a more familiar traveler in my life. After 20 years of never seeing it once, of being the sort of former Christian youth group kid who got nervous watching someone smoke a joint in a movie, weed was sort of inescapable for the next 20 years. In Champaign, in St. Louis and especially in New York, weed was everywhere, an occupational hazard, perhaps, of spending so much time with writers and journalists. The things is, though: I’ve smoked pot dozens of times since the labyrinthine mystery that was that kitchen, and .. I still don’t think I’ve gotten any better at it.

I know people who are able to smoke a joint the way parents might have a glass of wine at the end of a long day, and I also know people who don’t even get high anymore, who just smoke (or, increasingly, eat a gummy) to get to a steady level of semi-relaxed normalcy. I have never been one of those people. I actually get high. Which is to say, I actually get stupid.

That may not be true, actually, I might not actually become stupid like the snap of a finger, but in the moment, it sure seems that way. It seems like for most of you, when you get high, your brain relaxes and slows down. But mine, it does two big things wrong: It stops working right, and it also stops working right really quickly. My brain is a little bit more active than it should be even in its default state—it’s why I talk so fast, though I prefer to think the rest of you are just listening too slowly—and gets completely out of control when I’m high. But I also am aware that it’s not working right, that the usual processes are fraying and the synapses are all misfiring. This leads, essentially, to a total shutdown. I can lose touch with basic human form and function and forget what I’m like and how I’m supposed to act. If I’m at a party with you and everyone’s stoned, I will inevitably be the one talking the least and desperately hoping no one notices that I am there at all. Because if you talk to me you’re going to know.

You’d think I’d be better about this by now: It has been 25 years since I was in that kitchen, after all. Stimulants have always been more of a natural compliment to my personality, but I think I’m stimulated enough as is and plus that shit will kill you. I am a social person, and marijuana, for me, is the opposite of a social drug. It’s a perfectly pleasant solitary one: If I am by myself, reading a book or watching a movie or even at a concert, it’s an enhancement to an already passive experience. But the spell is over the minute I have to talk to someone.

But I’ve been more willing to give it another try in the last couple of years and I’ve gotten a little better. I know people who truly believe marijuana has gotten them through the pandemic. Marijuana is increasingly legal nearly everywhere—an old editor of mine has been predicting universal legality for two decades, noting, “once they realize how much tax you can put on it they’ll sell it in vending machines”—and it has been mainstreamed in a way I never could have predicted. I never thought I’d see the day that, when I volunteer that my parents were having some ailments, people would immediately suggest, “Oh, give them some weed.” That kid out smoking weed with his cousin while home from college for Christmas who discovered to his alarm that his father was still up when he walked in the front door, 25 years later, can’t quite wrap his mind around the fact that strangers are encouraging him to get his dad stoned. And they’re right! It would probably help!

I’ve gotten better, a little. But only a little. A few years ago, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote a widely derided column in which she bought a (legal) chocolate edible and clearly ate way too much of it. She freaked the hell out.

I felt a scary shudder go through my body and brain. I barely made it from the desk to the bed, where I lay curled up in a hallucinatory state for the next eight hours. I was thirsty but couldn’t move to get water. Or even turn off the lights. I was panting and paranoid, sure that when the room-service waiter knocked and I didn’t answer, he’d call the police and have me arrested for being unable to handle my candy. I strained to remember where I was or even what I was wearing, touching my green corduroy jeans and staring at the exposed-brick wall. As my paranoia deepened, I became convinced that I had died and no one was telling me.

Hahahahahahaaha what a dope. Except.

Right before the pandemic hit, I went back to Illinois for a few days, to speak to some college students in Champaign and see some old friends and family in Mattoon. This was just a few weeks after legal marijuana shops had opened in the state of Illinois, and I was curious: There was something hilarious to me, for reasons I couldn’t quite put my finger on, about walking into a store in freaking Effingham and buying a joint right next to the middle school where we used to play baseball and have scholastic bowl tournaments. So on the way I home I stopped by an Effingham dispensary and bought the only item they had left, some capsules that the guy in the window at the store said “were pretty light, they’ll help you sleep.” I had four classes to talk to the next day and was exhausted from the travel, so when I checked into my hotel in Mattoon, a beaten-up old Ramada by the Interstate, I opened a beer and took three. I then lay down and went to sleep.

I woke up three hours later convinced that every decision I’d made in my life had been wrong and everyone in my life I’d ever cared about has always found me to be an insufferable fool. I was cold, and I was hot, and I needed to get up and walk around a bit, except I was in a tiny bug-infested hotel room and next thing I knew I’d been pacing back and forth from the door to the window in my underwear for about an hour but it was also maybe five minutes and perhaps three years? I should go outside. So I put on my clothes and a coat and a hat and made about 30, or maybe just one, laps around the Ramada and the nearby Super 8 in the five-degrees-below cold. Then I went back inside and stripped down to my underwear again and began writing in my notebook about how I had value in the world and how that it was important to remember that right now and then that got too heavy so I decided to see if I could name every AL and NL MVP from the last 40 years just to keep myself occupied and then I had to pace some more and then I went outside again and it is to my eternal credit that I did remember to get dressed.

There I was, the established writer, Mr. Serious Journalist, coming back home, all dignified, ready to espouse wisdom and reconnect with his roots … losing his mind, in his underwear, in a 50-dollar-a-night hotel with one bored teenager at the front desk who barely raised an pierced eyebrow as the middle-aged man kept shuffling through the lobby all night, muttering to himself, trying to keep his brain inside his skull.

It is probably a societal positive that marijuana has gained mainstream acceptance and has found widespread usage as a way to calm the afflicted and ease the pain of the suffering. If it helps, let it help. But my personality is one of a drinker. I’m probably best sticking to drinking. Cheers.

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

  1. Who Has Held the Best Player in Baseball Belt for the Last 50 Years? MLB.com. This was a fun collaborative project with Michael Clair, Matt Meyers and (former Black Table contributor!) Thomas Forget, and it turned out great. Thanks to Joe Sheehan for the idea.

  2. Will There Ever Be a Pandemic Anniversary We Look Back On? Medium. I tried to look at how we will remember this, someday, if it’s ever over.

  3. AL Wild-Card Matchups, Ranked, MLB.com. I truly love writing pieces like this, I really do. It’s my equivalent of eating candy.

  4. I Interviewed Dave Zirin about His New Book The Kaepernick Effect, New York. I have known Dave a long time, and he has an annoying tendency to end up being right about everything over time.

  5. The Only News Parents Are Waiting For Is Kids Vaccine News, Medium. Hurry hurry hurry hurry.

  6. Internet Nostalgia: Alex from Target, Medium. I do not know who this person is, or at least didn’t until I started researching this.

  7. Seven Free Agents With Plenty on the Line over the Last Month, MLB.com. Javier Baez has had just the wildest few weeks.

  8. The Thirty: One Overlooked Player on Every Team, MLB.com. Well, not overlooked now that I’m done with ‘em!

PODCASTS

Grierson & Leitch, discussing “The Card Counter,” “Malignant” and “Queenpins.”

Seeing Red, Bernie and I talked about … whoa, wait, are the Cardinals good now?

Waitin' Since Last Saturday, we reviewed the UAB win and previewed South Carolina.

LONG STORY YOU SHOULD READ THIS MORNING … OF THE WEEK

“Parents of America, Unite,” Linda Hirshman, The Atlantic. I had not thought of the idea of parents, ACT UP-style, working together to pressure the FDA to get its act together, but this piece, by an author who wrote a book about the ACT UP movement, is a compelling and persuasive one. Do parents need their Larry Kramer?

Also, this Ben Mathis-Lilley Slate piece finally put all the information about that crazy South Carolina rich lawyer family story in one place so that I could (slightly) understand it. And it’s funny too.

BOOK I’VE READ THAT YOU SHOULD READ

“I Alone Can Fix It: Donald J. Trump’s Catastrophic Final Year,” Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker. I totally understand why you would not want to relive 2020, why you would not want to remember any of that at all. But this book, which I just finished, is a definitive account and truly, almost apocalyptically shocking, pretty much on every page. I would also argue it helps, psychologically, to read it in book form: When you read about everything that happened last year in a book, you can almost trick yourself into thinking it all went down a long, long time ago, and you’re reading some decades-later historical artifact. It helps!

ONGOING LETTER-WRITING PROJECT!

Write me at:

Will Leitch
P.O. Box 48
Athens GA 30603

CURRENTLY LISTENING TO

“Nights Like These,” Lucero. The world is just so full and rich with bands like this, who have just quietly been making great music for decades. And now you get to all discover, or re-discover it all.

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

There is some very good stuff happening in Cardinals land right now, and I was there to see some of it. Citi Field is such an underappreciated stadium.

Go Cards. BOO ILLINI THAT WAS DOWNRIGHT CRUEL LAST NIGHT. Be safe out there.

Best,
Will

Volume 3, Issue 81: I Am Trying to Break Your Heart

"I am an American aquarium drinker. I assassin down the avenue."

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 January 2009, I was in San Francisco, working on a story about a new Website called Twitter. I’d been in their offices all day--this was the day that the plane crashed in the Hudson River, which ended up becoming the driving narrative of my magazine feature--and when I left, I excitedly called my editor at New York to tell him how much good stuff I got. (Having the Hudson plane crash happen the very hours I was there, and to have that news literally be reported exclusively by Twitter while its founders sat there oblivious, was just incredible journalistic kismet.) I was chattering on about how I was going to structure the piece and brainstorming about whom we should talk to next when I heard a foghorn in the background of my editor’s call.

“Wait, where are you?” I said.
"I’m in San Francisco, actually,” he said. “Wait, I guess we’re both here. Wanna have a drink?”

I knew my editor well professionally but not that well personally, so we drank at his hotel bar--he was in town from New York, he admitted after his second vodka tonic, to interview for a job at another magazine--and got each other caught up on the contours of our lives. (He was a Duke guy who had worked in elite NYC media his whole career, so it was truly remarkable how much stuff he didn’t know. It took me 20 minutes to get him to understand that there were parts of Illinois that were not Chicago.) We discovered that we were co-workers who liked each other as people, and before you knew it, we were on our fourth drink and we’d canceled whatever other plans we had for the evening. We gossiped about colleagues, we strategized (ultimately unsuccessfully) how to get my Twitter story on the cover--we both just enjoyed talking shop with someone who loved the magazine industry as much as the other did. Then we got to talking about our favorite magazine stories ever. It was mostly the usual suspects: Susan Orlean’s Orchid Fever, David Foster Wallace’s Federer piece, Richard Ben Cramer’s Ted Williams obit. Then I mentioned Tom Junod’s Falling Man.

And then we talked about September 11 for three hours.

Today, everybody loves to tell their September 11 story. I was at a charity event last night, and merely mentioning that tomorrow was the 20th anniversary set off an immediate, almost unconscious sharing of everyone’s experience of that day. What’s interesting about these stories, which are generally consistent in their sameness, is that they usually are not about the person’s experience of September 11: They are about the time right before the attack, when the person telling the story was still innocent and oblivious and free of the burden and pain of what was coming. The stories aren’t about the planes hitting the towers or the Pentagon being attacked; they’re about the final seconds of walking around the world, those final seconds before you knew it was possible something like that could happen.

But in 2009, even that late, just launching into your September 11 story, particularly when you lived in the city when it happened, wasn’t something you just launched into. September 11 was discombobulating for anyone who lived through it, but the experience of living in New York City in the months and years directly afterward is impossible to explain to anyone who wasn’t there. It just hung in the air--the smell in the city was still front-page news a month later--and quietly suffocated just about everything you might find yourself a part of. You didn’t talk about September 11, or at least no one I knew did. You just slogged through the fog of it, or hacked through the thicket, to try to find any sort of air. And you drank. If you were to ask me what the months after September 11 were like, I mostly just remember me and everybody I knew drinking, usually quietly, often alone. You didn’t talk about it, and you didn’t need to. It was like talking about the ground, or the air, or your skin.

But that day in San Francisco, both of us just opened up. We talked about that day, the intricate details, that odd little tidbits that had gotten away from us. There was a woman who had gone missing, with her loved ones putting up Have You Seen Her? posters in the subway, the day before September 11, posters that were instantly overwhelmed. I’d forgotten about that. I’d been at Windows on the World just a few weeks before, seeing Amy Phillips and the Pontani Sisters, and I’d written a piece, long lost to history, about what it felt like to see a concert 1,300 feet in the air. I’d forgotten about that too. I was working at a doctor’s office on the Upper East Side that morning, and when they sent us all home at lunchtime, because there were no wounded to attend to (you either made it out, or you didn’t), I walked the 100 blocks downtown to my friend Eric’s place on the Bowery, where I knew all my friends would gather. A video crew was stopping people and interviewing them about what had happened. They stopped me too. I wonder if that video will ever surface. I wonder what I said.

I told all these stories to my editor. He told me all of his. I don’t think I’d talked about any of them, to anyone, before that point. He hadn’t either. But they just poured out of us that day. “I guess this is what happens when you get two New Yorkers drunk together in another city,” he said. “We just won’t shut up about September 11.” That was eight years later. It felt just as raw then. It felt like we’d just then started to deal with it.

****************
If there was one thing I was sure about September 11, it’s that living through it would be one of the primary things my theoretical future grandchildren would note about me. He was in New York City during 9/11, they’d whisper into their cyberwatches that they use to move effortlessly throughout space and time. But I no longer think that is true. The only thing anyone who was alive in 2020 will be whispered about by the later, cyberwatch-transporting generation will be that we lived through the pandemic. They will look at me, with my constant hand-washing and discomfort with confined spaces, the same way I looked at my grandparents, whose Depression experience led them to save old bars of soap and freeze every bit of leftover food, no matter how rotted and disgusting.

One of the worst things about September 11, in retrospect, was how destabilized everything has been ever since. It felt certain then that it was the worst thing that could possibly happen, but it turns out it was the start of a whole cavalcade. I suspect that’s why our stories are always about what we were like right before the attack, when we were people who had no idea what was coming. It still feels like we are trying to catch our breath, and can’t quite get there.

And as I get older, this is how September 11 resonates: It was the last time that something could truly knock us over, the last time when something so horrible could happen that our brains couldn’t process it. Now? Now our brains process horrible things all the time. I’ve had to process three or four pieces of truly horrific news since I woke up this morning, and I bet you have too. Now, is that just a product of the time, and our media consumption habits? I was 24 years old on September 11 and worked in an office that didn’t have a TV, let alone a scrolling Twitter feed; the first time I saw the destruction of the World Trade Center was hours later when I could see, from my friend Eric’s roof, the smoke still rising up from where the buildings had so recently stood. Now I’d be watching the whole thing live, and someone would be streaming on Twitch from Windows on the World, and there’d be a million hot takes launched before the first building fell. I feel like I was more innocent and sheltered in 2001 because I was more innocent and sheltered in 2001. But I was also 24 and childless and with no real responsibilities or obligations: I was scared for me and my friends, which counts as being scared but is absolutely nothing like being scared for your children. It would be harder now. I think I can admit that.

I’m not sure we learned anything from September 11, and if anything, it has made us dumber--more lumbering, more reactionary, more lizard-brain in our thought processes. But as I get older, I’ve stopped worrying so much about people learning anything from big massive events; the pandemic has surely put a permanent end to that little bit of magical thinking. Instead, I’ve started thinking of these global shifts simply as events to be survived, to be muddled through, to hunker down with my loved ones and do my absolute best to keep everyone as safe as I can. It is difficult to find, or even to look for, heroes anymore. It’s much more prudent just to seek shelter. I hope it’s not always like that.

That’s how September 11 changed things, I think, for me, and maybe for a lot of people. Back then I was shocked at this awful thing that happened. Now I find myself just grateful for the time we have where something awful isn’t happening. I do not know if this is better--it sure doesn’t seem like it. But it feels more mature. Life isn’t about blindly dancing along, thinking everything is going to be all right and then being waylaid when it isn’t. It’s about appreciating the good moments, the quiet moments, the safe moments, and being fortified for the moments that aren’t. We look at those days before September 11 wistfully because we miss not knowing that a September 11, or a pandemic, or a January 6, could possibly happen. But we were wrong, back then, not to know that. Those things could, and did, happen. Knowing that now should make us appreciate those rare moments of calm when they come, when we have quiet, when we have some peace. I can see them with much more vivid color now, and I hold onto them as long as I can. There are more dark moments now. But the moments of light? I now find them so much brighter. There is some solace in that. And maybe even some hope.

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

  1. Unfortunately, Roger Goodell Deserves Credit, New York. It hurts me to say this as much as it hurts you to hear it. But it’s sadly true.

  2. Your September 11 Reading List, Medium. I have read way, way too many September 11 books. Here are the best ones.

  3. Bishop Sycamore Is Just the Tip of the Corrupt High School Football Spear, NBC News. Hadn’t written for these folks in a while, I was due.

  4. My Previously Unpublished Interview With the Naudet Brothers, the Original 9/11 Chroniclers, Is Now Published, Medium. This was supposed to be in the 10-year September 11 anniversary issue of New York, but man that thing was packed. So it got cut, and now here it is.

  5. Who’s the Next Player to End Up With 40 Homers?, MLB.com. In honor of Vlad Jr.’s accomplishment.

  6. Internet Nostalgia: Slender Man, Medium. How the Internet now is different than it was in 2009, Part 1,000,000.

  7. Best Gambling Movies, Updated, Vulture. With The Card Counter.

  8. I Wrote a Piece For the MLB All-Star Game Program and They Mailed It To Me This Week and I Saw It, So I’m Counting It, MLB Productions. This is not the actual headline of the piece.

  9. The Thirty: A Goal For Every Team This September, MLB.com. My goal for the Cardinals this September is “not to watch them.”

PODCASTS

Grierson & Leitch, discussing “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” “Worth” and “Bronson.”

Seeing Red, Bernie and I talked Pujols and the merciful impending end of the season.

Waitin' Since Last Saturday, we reviewed that big Clemson win and previewed UAB.

LONG STORY YOU SHOULD READ THIS MORNING … OF THE WEEK

“One in 5,000,” David Leonhardt, The New York Times. David Leonhardt has been a voice of reason and sanity throughout the pandemic, and this was the best piece yet about the low odds of a breakthrough infection, and the infinitesimal odds of needing medical attention if you get one. I do not know if any readers of this newsletter haven’t been vaccinated yet, but if you haven’t, jeez, please, please do so. For your sake, more than just anyone else’s.

BOOK I’VE READ THAT YOU SHOULD READ

Fall and Rise: The Story of 9/11, Mitchell Zuckoff. Perhaps the least well-known great September 11 book, this one came out in 2019 and still feels to me like the most definitive account of everything. This is the one that has everything.

ONGOING LETTER-WRITING PROJECT!

Write me at:

Will Leitch
P.O. Box 48
Athens GA 30603

CURRENTLY LISTENING TO

“Seven Sisters,” The Shouting Matches. Now that I’ve (finally) converted fully to Spotify, I constantly delight in discovering stuff from nearly a decade ago that I’d never known existed in the first place. Hence: The Shouting Matches.

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

Today is the first tailgate in Athens, Georgia, since early November 2019. Fair to say people will be out in full force. Including these two:

Be safe out there. And go Dawgs. (And go Illini.)

Best,
Will

Volume 3, Issue 80: Black Moon

"Danced above the blaze, never stopped crawling."

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.

People often ask me what kind of music I listen to when I write. I was watching a (good) movie yesterday in which the main character, when he needs to calm down or concentrate, puts on classical music, and you know, wouldn’t that be wonderful, wouldn’t I be cultured, if the letters my fingers keep making right now came accompanied by Tchaikovsky or something. They’re not. I’m very specific about my background music when I’m working. I can’t listen to rap, because with rap I pay too much attention to the lyrics, and when I’m writing I don’t want to pay attention to anything other than what I’m trying to write. I try not to listen to anything I haven’t heard a million times before for the same reason. (I don’t have time or headspace to “discover” music when I’m writing.) And, weirdly, music actually can’t be too good for my writing music: Some albums—Nevermind, Exile in Guyville, The Soft Bulletin, OK Computer, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road—are so great that they commander too much of my head space. When they’re playing, all I want to do is listen to them, and nothing else.

You’d think I’d be tapping away listening to Wilco or My Morning Jacket or Bob Dylan or some other old-washed-hipster-dad-mid-tempo-rock business, but that’s too slow for me. That’s walking around music, not working music. I write fast, and I need to listen to something that can keep up with me. I need drive, I need pace, I need intense forward momentum. I need to freaking move.

I need The Sword.

The Sword is an Austin-based acid metal band that was discovered at the 2005 South by Southwest Festival, where they made a big enough splash to launch a career that has lasted 16 years now but not one so huge that most normal people know who they are. (They are probably most famous for having a song on the original Guitar Hero video game.) I was obsessed with their album “Age of Winters” back in 2006—I have a distinct memory of listening to “Lament For The Auroch” on my iPod while walking into Shea Stadium for Game Six of the 2006 NLCS—and have followed them ever since. I would not classify anything they are doing as high art, but you could wake me up in the dead of night and demand that I name every single song from every one of their albums in the exact correct order and I could totally do it. I truly love The Sword. And this is because they make big loud intense music with huge epic dumbass riffs, and they make it really, really fast. Their music at times feels like an exact replication of what’s going on in my brain when I’m writing. It is constant forward momentum.

It doesn’t always have to be The Sword—other bands in regular rotation when I’m writing include Dinosaur Jr., Death From Above 1979 and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club—but that’s the constant: Forward momentum. The trick to writing, I’ve found, is to sort of forget that you’re doing it at all. You get yourself so into the headspace of making something that you don’t even notice that you’re doing it. I’m well into the next novel right now, and after putting on the Death From Above 1979 Spotify playlist for three hours, I looked up and I’d written about 4,000 words. Were all of those words perfect? They were not. But they were the big blast burst rush explosion of what I was trying to say. I did not have to coax them out of my brain; the music shoved them out. I relate it a little to listening to fast, intense music while running. If you just follow the beat of what you’re listening to, you’ll run faster without even realizing it. Listening to this sort of rock—not heavy metal, not Megadeth junk, more like a bunch of guys who wanted to play Tool songs insanely fast—makes my fingers move as fast as my brain is. It is my exact speed.

And god, making this music seems so fun! I am incapable of playing even the most basic musical instrument, so I’m always in awe of what musicians are able to do. But there’s an inherent almost operatic drama in this sort of music—every song feels like the end of the world, so you better play the shit out of it.

That photo is from a show I went to last night, here in Athens, Georgia, at the Georgia Theater. Everyone has their own risk tolerance these days, but the Georgia Theater has a vaccination requirement, and I have to tell you, it’s actually pretty awesome to go to a public event where you know that everyone in attendance has been vaccinated. (Also, going to a rock show of an aging metal band that requires proof of vaccination will rid you of some of your stereotypes about what type of people are getting vaxxed and what type of people aren’t.) There was no way I was going to be able to talk anyone in my life to go see The Sword with me, so I went by myself. It was absolutely joyous. The band was great—as was one of the two opening bands, the absurdly named Rickshaw Billie’s Burger Patrol—but they didn’t really have to be for me to feel like I was floating above the ground for two hours. There is a certain gratitude, I’ve noticed, in the shows shows I’ve been to in the last couple of months: Both the band and the crowd feel so fortunate to be there, so eager to reclaim some of what they have lost, that there is an undeniable vibe of communal joy. It makes you feel happy—and lucky—to be alive.

I’m too old to go bumping around in the pit near the stage (as was most of the crowd, all told), so I just stood off to the side, drinking a domestic draft, letting the noise surround and invade my brain and just, for one night, letting go entirely. I know you’re supposed to be crazily intense at these shows, but if you were to have gotten on stage and taken a picture of the audience last night, you would have seen me with a huge goofy grin on my face. I hope the band didn’t see me. I probably looked like a serial killer.

I know that we are still a long way from normal, and that every week seems to bring one more new step backward. But there is value, in this endlessly tumultuous time, in being able to lose yourself, to surrender yourself to forward momentum—honestly, just to fucking rock out. I feel better this morning. I really do. And so you know: I wrote this so fast.

TEXAS

I’ve struggled with how helpless and frustrated I’ve felt after the Supreme Court’s decision this week to allow Texas’ mob-justice abortion law to stand. I’ve been trying to find some productive way to channel that helplessness and frustration, and this Strategist piece was of some assistance, though just a little. All told: I think the only way to really help is to vote your ass off again next year. So enjoy the fall and the holidays—I very much plan to—because there’s a shitload of work to do in 2022.

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

  1. What We Talk About When We Talk About Booing, New York. They’re saying “LEEEEEEEITCH.”

  2. The Eternal Irrepressibility of Children, Medium. Are our kids handling this better than we are?

  3. It’s Still Just the Unvaccinated Who Can’t Leave the Country Right Now, Medium. Sorry, unvaxxed folk: No trip to Scotland for you.

  4. Best MLB Players of August, MLB.com. Love that Adam Wainwright leads this list.

  5. The Game One Starter For Every Playoff Hopeful, MLB.com. Speaking of Wainwright ….

  6. Internet Nostalgia: Milkshake Duck, Medium. It’s coming for us all.

  7. The Thirty: Every Team’s Best In-Season Addition, MLB.com. Everyone had one but the Rockies, ha.

PODCASTS

Grierson & Leitch, discussing “Candyman,” “Happy Together” and “The Fisher King.”

Seeing Red, Bernie and I just don’t know what to do with this team.

Waitin' Since Last Saturday, we celebrated actual football with a Georgia-Clemson preview.

LONG STORY YOU SHOULD READ THIS MORNING … OF THE WEEK

“The Roys Summer in Italy,” Hunter Harris, New York. The perfect match between writer and subject. I also love this show, yes.

BOOK I’VE READ THAT YOU SHOULD READ

Roger Ebert’s “The Great Movies” series. Perhaps inevitably after last week’s trip, I’ve been digging through these again. I now want to watch all of these movies, maybe at once.

ONGOING LETTER-WRITING PROJECT!

Write me at:

Will Leitch
P.O. Box 48
Athens GA 30603

CURRENTLY LISTENING TO

“Avant Gardener,” Courtney Barnett. Every Courtney Barnett song makes me want to sit in the back of a bar and just listen to everyone else talk to each other.

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

Look what is now happening with people who live in my home.

Have a great weekend. Go Illini. Go Dawgs.

Best,
Will

Volume 3, Issue 79: Bright Leaves

"An empty page, glowing alone for days."

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.

For the first time since February 2020, I am in Central Illinois. This is the longest I have gone without being in Central Illinois since I was born at the old Mattoon Memorial Hospital on October 10, 1975, the day before the first-ever episode of “Saturday Night Live.” I was in my hometown of Mattoon yesterday—I ate at the original Burger King—where I saw my childhood home, the old movie theater I used to work at and my cousin Denny. Now that my parents have moved away, there isn’t that much reason to go back to Mattoon anymore, but I still do it every time I can anyway. It is the place of first, from my first job (corn detassling for four bucks an hour) to my first published and bylined article (a movie review of Patriot Games for the Mattoon Journal-Gazette) to my first chocolate ice cream cone (at Gill’s Diner, out by the old drive-in) to my first kiss (Barbara Icenogle, in the parking lot of the Broadway Christian Church). Much of my childhood was spent stricken at the possibility of never getting out of Mattoon. Now it feels like a part of me is always trying to get back.

But most of my time this trip, I’m in Champaign, home of the University of Illinois, where I graduated (barely) with a degree in Journalism in 1997. When I was about to move to college, I was mostly worried about being a Mattoon kid surrounded by all the Chicago suburb students in Champaign; I remember actively trying to flatten my voice to make sure I didn’t have a downstate accent they could make fun of me for. (The Chicago/downstate divide in Illinois has been a solid framework for understanding the blue state/red state split since I was a child.) But now returning to Champaign gives me that same ease of breath, that all right, now I am in a place that I deeply understand, that Mattoon always has. I was in Champaign for four years, but I’ll be here forever.

And the first thing I did on Thursday night was go see an old friend.

I realized, while visiting the Roger Ebert statue outside the Virginia Theater in downtown Champaign, that it’s sort of remarkable to have known someone, personally, in the real world, and then, in that same lifetime, visiting a statue of them. That’s got to be pretty rare, right? Did people see the Lincoln Memorial and say, “yep, that’s Abe all right?” I know that this is a time of tearing down statues of our flawed idols—though I’m trying to fathom what sort of reckoning would lead to a destruction of Ebert’s statue; maybe if he did steroids?—but it is sort of surreal to see an actual statue of an actual person that you actually knew.

My story about Roger Ebert remains one of the most famous things I’ve ever written, and one I was grateful to make peace with him about before he died. But that story isn’t really about the first time I actually met Ebert. (It’s only alluded to in the original piece.) We had corresponded throughout most of college, as mentioned, after I emailed him to ask him if he had, as had been long rumored, had sex on the editor-in-chief’s desk at the Daily Illini. (He said, alas, that he had not but that he found it “reassuring that professors down there are still teaching their students to ask the tough questions.”) But the first time we actually met was when he took his every-two-years trip to visit with the Daily Illini staff. It was a whole weekend endeavor. Ebert was a distinguished alumni of the University of Illinois—he has a statue, for crissakes—but his true heart was with the DI; we got the bulk of his time. On Friday he would visit the DI office for a couple of hours, telling stories and giving advice on how to plan our careers upon graduation. (His advice—get a job with a suburban Chicago paper, work your way up to the Trib or Sun-Times and then stay there until you retire—was excellent advice until it suddenly, dramatically wasn’t.) On Sunday, he’d visit our editorial board meeting—previously visited by Robert Novak, the “Prince of Darkness”—and weigh in on the topics of the day before heading back north to the city.

But Saturday was the centerpiece. First was an early dinner, almost a late lunch, with the top editors at the DI at Papa Del’s Pizza, which made deep-dish Chicago pizza in a way that all the upstate kids never stopped claiming was the only way anyone should be allowed to eat pizza. It was just eight of us at a table with Roger, drinking beer and eating pizza and shit-talking Gene Siskel. (Who Roger loved, and loved shit-talking even more.) We were there for several hours, drinking and asking questions and sharing stories. It was clear that this was the real reason for Ebert’s trip: To spend as much time as possible with the people who loved the Daily Illini as powerfully as he did. Because I was the film critic of the group—again, we’d been corresponding for a couple years, and you can make a pretty strong argument that Ebert was the reason I gone to Illinois to study journalism in the first place—I got the most Ebert face time, and at one point, he even read one of my reviews out loud to the table, praising the turns of phrase he liked and openly mocking the ones he didn’t. (“You probably shouldn’t write about sex anymore,” he laughed, but since then, I am pretty sure I never have.) I can still recall the dinner with palpable specificity, from the seating arrangement to the waitress who brought out the pizza and pitchers to the college football game that was on the television at the bar. I could not believe I was there, having Roger Ebert make fun of my writing. I was not sure life could possibly get any better.

That night, Ebert hosted a surprise screening at the (now-closed and abandoned) Art Theater in downtown Champaign. Before he went up to introduce the movie, he walked over to me. “You’re going to be very excited with the movie we’re showing,” he said. “It’s your guy.” The movie was Woody Allen’s Mighty Aphrodite, a film he’d procured before its release “with the approval of Woody himself.” This was before my own Woody Allen reckoning, back when seeing a new Woody Allen movie felt like Christmas morning. After the film was over, in front of my friends and colleagues and professors and just about everyone in the world whose judgment I most valued, Ebert came back over to me and asked me what I thought of the film. And I was once again not sure life could possibly get any better.

My life did not end up going the direction I thought it would after that screening, or after college, or after any of it. I did not end up becoming a professional film critic, I wouldn’t have a stable professional journalism job for nearly a decade, I would end up foolishly and stupidly starting a feud with Ebert because I was young and stupid and reckless, I would apologize, we would make up, he would end up dying, and now there’s a statue of him next to the AirBNB I’m staying in during my first visit back to Central Illinois in 17 months because of a global pandemic. I took a selfie next to it. It’s a great statue. It does look like him.

Ebert was 53 when he made that trip to Champaign in 1995; I am now 45 and doing the same thing. We end up going in all sorts of different directions, and being lost, and confused, and scared, but we keep moving forward, and making new things, and trying to figure it all out. “Just write, get better, keep writing, keep getting better. It's the only thing you can control,” he told me in our very first correspondence. I still think about that every single day. And in the end, we always end up trying to get back home.

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

  1. Yadier Molina: A Career History in Backup Catchers, MLB.com. This is the sort of baseball dorkery I love. Also, this wasn’t the best week of stuff, so this is kind of a default pick. Gimme a break, it’s August.

  2. It’s OK to Enjoy Your Vaccinated Life, Medium. It is! You totally can! Don’t feel guilty! You did the right thing!

  3. College Football Is the Wild West Now, New York. I don’t mind. It’s not making me watch any less.

  4. Your Six-Weeks-Left Wildcard Rundown, MLB.com. The Cardinals have a better chance than the Mariners, and the Cardinals are a lot worse than the Mariners.

  5. Everyone, Please Look at My Vaccine Card! Medium. [Dana-Carvey-as-George-Michael-voice] It’s my card! I wax it! I polish it! It’s my card!

  6. Internet Nostalgia: David After Dentist, Medium. Yeah, kid: This is real life.

  7. The Thirty: Players Most Likely to Be on Their Same Team in 2028, MLB.com. We do this one every year, and eventually I’m just going to get caught up to, you know, now.

PODCASTS

Grierson & Leitch, discussing “Reminiscence” (a word I am already tired of spelling), “The Night House” and “Adventureland.”

Seeing Red, Bernie and I lamented the small crowds at Busch.

Waitin' Since Last Saturday, we did our big Georgia team preview. The next newsletter after this one will be a UGA gameday. (Albeit one in Charlotte.)

LONG STORY YOU SHOULD READ THIS MORNING … OF THE WEEK

“2021 Illinois Football Preview,” Robert Rosenthal, Illiniboard. I just have to do my annual shoutout to Robert Rosenthal, the last true Illini football believer, who wrote 24,724 words previewing this year’s Illinois football team. He is insane and beautiful.

BOOK I’VE READ THAT YOU SHOULD READ

“Eating the Dinosaur,” Chuck Klosterman. I know Klosterman is a polarizing author for some people, but I think he’s great—I find him, if this makes sense, resolutely sane in a way I find weirdly comforting, even when I think he’s wrong (or, worse, alarming). He has a new book coming out in February, called The Nineties, but this is still my favorite one. The closing essay about the Unabomber and the Internet knocked me on the floor.

ONGOING LETTER-WRITING PROJECT!

Write me at:

Will Leitch
P.O. Box 48
Athens GA 30603

CURRENTLY LISTENING TO

“The Man Who Sold The World,” Nirvana. While we’re discussing the ‘90s, here’s my favorite live performance ever from Nirvana, a band (as I believe I’ve mentioned about 30,000 times) I never did in fact to get see live. There are moments in this song where I can’t catch my breath.

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

This morning, I ran with the Illini Run Club, which included the Illinois wrestling team, several readers of this here newsletter and Illinois Athletic Director Josh Whitman. My AD is faster than your AD.

It’s good to be home. Have a great weekend, all. Go Illini.

Best,
Will

Volume 3, Issue 78: Shouldn't Be Ashamed

"If it's not like I told you, then it's still your call."

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 am always suspicious of anyone who is too confident in themselves. This is one of the (many) reasons I am terrible at social media. That social media does not do nuance well is baked into the platform, which wouldn’t be that big of a deal except for the fact that America’s media organizations have started using Twitter as an assigning editor, making it increasingly impossible for anyone to have a large-scale good-faith conversation about anything. (Afghanistan only being the most recent example.) But I’d argue social media does uncertainty even worse. Nearly everything on social media is posted with the utmost conviction and self-assurance, as if each statement is so painfully obvious that it’s embarrassing that anyone would even have to say it. This makes sense: It’s our strongest thoughts and beliefs that we feel compelled to broadcast to the outside world; it’s why we’re broadcasting them so loudly. Few leap to exclaim, “Here is something I haven’t made up my mind about!”

But this leads, inevitably, to the sort of combativeness that has invaded every molecule of our public life. I can say with absolute moral certainty that I am manifestly correct on this particular subject and if you do not agree with me on every point there is something inherently wrong with you. The goal is not to persuade, convince or even put forth a cogent argument: The goal is to signal to a tribe that you’re on their side, not the other one, the bad one, whatever this perhaps-imagined bad one might be. It’s to “win.” (What you win exactly has never been clear.) It’s all performative. To be on social media is to be surrounded by human beings who are always certain they are right about everything all the time. I’ve long argued with my friend Charlie Warzel with his assertion that “Twitter Is Real Life.” He remains wrong. [Will says with absolute moral authority that he is manifestly correct.] People are simply not this certain of themselves in the actual real world. These people, when they are alone at night, in the dark, in the silence, looking up at the ceiling … are they so pristinely sure of themselves? Do they look into the darkness, completely alone, and think, yeah, I got everything right today. I completely nailed it. Everything I said will hold up forever. I have zero doubts about any of it.

This is particularly damaging during a time like this, because we all keep constantly being proven wrong about everything. This week, I went in for my annual checkup with my doctor. I was relieved to receive a clean bill of health and then spent the rest of my time in the office hearing the doctor talk about how awful the last year has been for anyone in the medical profession. When I had walked into his office, I saw a picture on the wall of him with his sleeve rolled up, receiving his vaccine shot. (It had “I got vaxxed!” written in black magic marker on it, like a headshot of an Italian actor at an NYC pizza joint.) I had been in his office for some blood work last December and had seen this same picture, right after he’d put it up. I was so inspired by it back then, to see someone I knew and respected, someone who lives just down the road from me, receiving his shot. It was a sign that we were almost through this, that shots were coming, that the exit ramp from this horrible time was just around the corner. It did not even occur to me that someone would not want a vaccine. Hadn’t they gone through the same thing we’d all gone through? Wouldn’t they want a way out of that? Seeing that photo on the wall this week hit a lot differently than it did in December. Back then, it had been an augur of a better future; seeing it now, it made me nostalgic for a more hopeful past.

Just constant wrongness, from the get-go. The college students have returned to campus in Athens this week, and it reminded me of last year, when the influx of students led to widespread fears in town that they would spur a Covid-19 outbreak. (“The students are back. And they’re bringing hell with them,” I wrote last August.) It is true that there was a surge in cases when the students returned. But it quickly abated. But it was not the end of the Athens outbreaks. A year later, before the students return for the next school year, our cases are actually at a higher level than they were this time last year.

It turns out we don’t need to lambast students for Covid irresponsibility: We’re more than capable of being irresponsible on our own.

Wrongness, everywhere you look. Exactly two months ago today, I wrote about masks being “the physical artifacts of our time” and wondered aloud what I was going to do with all these masks that I obviously wasn’t going to need anymore. Don’t chuckle at my idiocy too much there: You thought we’d turned the corner too. (So did the CDC, and the President.) Right now, parents are at school board meetings everywhere screaming at each other about masks. It seems sort of clear-cut to me that kids should be wearing masks in schools—and I don’t think there’s any doubt that parents care about this a lot more than kids do—but now there are new studies, studies actually done here in Georgia, that say masks for kids may not make much of a difference in transmission at all. Are they right? I have no idea! But I sure do see a lot of people, from every possible angle, being stone-certain in their conviction that they are.

People have decided they are right, often with very solid reasoning, and then right there they will no longer budge moving forward. But this pandemic has done nothing but throw us curveballs, over and over and over. There are good signs, both from Europe and from current trends, that this fall is going to be a better period than what we’re currently going through, and I found this post even rather optimistic, in both the short- and long-term. But I don’t know. I’m just guessing. More than that: I’m guessing based off certain inherent parts of my personality. I am hopeful and believe that people, even sometimes in spite of themselves, are inherently and collectively good and will try to do the right thing, even as they screw up constantly along the way. So of course I think it’s going to turn out all right. If you look differently at the world, with a more caustic, even fatalistic, approach, you might think it’s going to end up much worse. That doesn’t make you any more right, or wrong, than me. It just means we’re both still guessing. That our guesses on outcomes happen to line up with our views of the world should make us more suspicious of our thought processes, not less.

I don’t remember a time in my life I was angrier than in the days after January 6. I was appalled and saddened and repulsed and downright pallid with rage, particularly with the complicity of some people I knew and cared about. My rage was correct: The remains one of the most horrible things I’ve ever seen. But that rage was also eating me alive. I was grouchy and snarling and generally just difficult to be around. I realized that I’d been carrying with that me the entire pandemic, being obsessed with what other people were doing, how they weren’t wearing masks, how they seemed to lack the ability to care about their neighbors and the rest of the world around them. It was a daily thought process: Did you see who wasn’t wearing a mask at the grocery store? I can’t believe they’re pulling their kids out of public school. Oh, I guess they’ve just decided the pandemic is over for them. It was all so snide and self-destructive … even if I was right. I wasn’t changing any minds. I was just eating myself from the inside.

So I’ve tried to stop. I do not agree with every single decision all of my friends and family has been making, but I also am sure many of them do not agree with all of mine. I cannot control that, and besides, particularly as this drags on, we’re discovering that everyone’s risk assessments are different, that there are more shadings in our behavior than we even realized last year. Some people feel comfortable going out and being completely normal if they’re vaxxed; some are more cautious; some are furious at people who aren’t vaxxed; some want to tailgate; some want to go into the office; some want to work from home forever. Every single person is different. This has of course always been true: Every single person has always been different—that’s why they’re, you know, people. But the pandemic has drawn a big circle around every single little difference, and made us sit and marinate with those differences. All actions lead to judgments. And the only thing we all have in common is that we are so exhausted.

The only wise response I can come up with is to stop. Stop being so sure of myself. Stop being so certain that what I’m doing is right. Stop looking at others and tsk tsking, even if I might personally find their behavior irresponsible. After all: There will be a time when this is over, probably when Covid-19 is just endemic, when we get shots every couple of years for it and don’t think about it anymore than the flu shot I just got at the doctor’s office this week. And when that happens, we’re all going to have to still live with each other. I have spent much of this pandemic either shaking my head in disapproval or with a vein popping out of my head in frustration. If I keep that up, if we all keep that up, we’re going to kill ourselves. I’m going to do the right thing for myself and my loved ones, and I’m going to try to continue to make the case for doing the right thing, whatever that is, as best as I can understand it. But this faux-certainty is draining us of our souls. It’s tearing us apart.

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

  1. NFL Teams and Colleges Need to Make Fans Get Vaccinated, New York. Want Covid-19 numbers in the South to go down? This is a pretty solid way.

  2. The Ten Best Players With a Chance to Win Their First World Series This Year, MLB.com. I am christening these “The Marinos.”

  3. Parents Are Running Out of Covid-19 Options, Medium. Boy, it sure is great to be back at this place again one year later, isn’t it? Just wonderful.

  4. This Week in Genre History: Piranha 3D, SYFY Wire. This is my last piece for SYFY Wire. Hey, good run!

  5. Crazy League Leaders You Would Have Never Seen Coming, MLB.com. I love nerdy little things like this.

  6. Internet Nostalgia: Diamond Joe Biden, Medium. People are taking Uncle Joe a little more seriously these days.

  7. Bruce Willis Is Getting Paid to Deepfake Himself, Medium. Disturbing! But also surely the future!

  8. The Thirty: Every Team’s Top Pending Free Agent, MLB.com. With the CBA expiring this offseason, it is definitely going to take a while to get the hot stove going.

PODCASTS

Grierson & Leitch, discussing “Free Guy,” “Respect” and “Beckett.”

Seeing Red, Bernie and I looked at a then-resurgent Cardinals..

Waitin' Since Last Saturday, we did our big SEC preview.

LONG STORY YOU SHOULD READ THIS MORNING … OF THE WEEK

“A New Variant of COVID Denialism Has Emerged,” Jonathan Chait, New York. This is opinion writing at its very best: A clear narrative through-line, entertainingly written and a resolute focus that makes the conclusion not only persuasive, but almost impossible to argue with.

BOOK I’VE READ THAT YOU SHOULD READ

“Very Recent History,” Choire Sicha. For the second time in my life, I work for the same people as Choire does. Choire is one of my favorite writers in the world and is thankfully no longer wasting his talents editing. (I kid, editors! I love you!) Choire actually wrote about my little kerfuffle with people who are cheering people who are dying of Covid-19 this week for New York, which was nice and a great piece and also reminded me how much I love this book. It is also now so dated that it feels like was written during the Roaring 20s.

ONGOING LETTER-WRITING PROJECT!

Write me at:

Will Leitch
P.O. Box 48
Athens GA 30603

CURRENTLY LISTENING TO

“People Who Died,” The Jim Carroll Band. I wasn’t as high on The Suicide Squad as Grierson was, but the soundtrack is fantastic. Did you know this song is in E.T.? Apparently it is! 1982 Steven Spielberg couldn’t have possibly been into Jim Carroll, could he?

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

I’ll be here in exactly one week.

Have a great weekend, all.


Best,
Will

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