Volume 2, Issue 97: Rising Red Lung

"I want a wig that's been blown by something unknown."

When I look back at my childhood, I don’t remember running freely through open fields, or seeing the world with wide-eyed innocence, or embracing the gentle caress of long-lost loved ones. I mostly just remember chores.

We were not an allowance family, where you received some sort of payment for services rendered. We were a “these are the things you are expected to do by the time I get home from work so that I continue to allow you to live in this house” family. From a very young age—much younger than my oldest son is now, and we don’t make that kid do anything more than make his bed and try not to pee on the floor—there was an understanding that I was to pull my own weight around here.

We lived out in rural Illinois, in the country, where there weren’t labeled roads and your address was always something like “RR#2 Box 334.” This meant that, first off, there was a ton of lawn to mow. But mowing was just the start of it. Once our front and back yards mowed, you had to get out the weed eater and trim around the trees, clothesline and the deck behind the house. The weed eater was a particularly gruesome assignment, because you couldn’t wear shorts while using it; you’d cut the shit out of your ankles if you wore shorts. So you had to wear long sweatpants in the middle of the oppressively humid Illinois summer, constantly tapping the weed eater on the ground each time it got jammed and shutting it off to untangle the string trimmer line every five minutes or so. When I was done with all that, I busted out the riding tractor to mow the massive empty lot next to our house, which apparently we didn’t own but Dad thought we needed to mow anyway because the other guy never would and we didn’t want it looking terrible next to our house. This whole process took about 2 1/2 hours, and when you were done, you had about 36 hours to appreciate it before you had to go out and do it again. This led to a perpetual green stain on every pair of my shoes, one I’m proud to report made it into my senior picture, which documented my perpetual, desperate struggle to successfully ascend a ladder.

But mowing was the easy part. At least I could zone out and listen to music while mowing. Mowing was just the start. Other non-negotiable obligations at the Leitch home included but were not limited to:

  • Adjusting the satellite dish in the backyard after storms.

  • Changing the oil in all cars when needed.

  • Chopping firewood.

  • Emptying all cat litter boxes. (Not having a sense of smell was an undeniable advantage here.)

  • Scraping ice off all windshields.

  • Shoveling snow off the driveway and sidewalks.

  • Stacking stray bricks in the back yard.

  • Straightening up the shed.

  • Sweeping up the garage.

  • Switching out any and all burnt-out light bulbs.

  • Taking down any wasps nests.

  • Trimming all hedges.

  • Washing and waxing all vehicles (excepting Dad’s work truck, which was not to be touched under any circumstance, and his Camaro, which was not even to be looked at).

Those are just the ones I remember. The late August firewood gathering was always the worst. Dad would wake me up before dawn, and we’d head out to the woods and literally chop down a goddamned tree. It was a little less lumberjack-y than that; we usually shared it with another family, and we spent all day cutting it into smaller pieces, like ants breaking down a piece of bread. It was an 12-hour job, and by the end of a 100-degree day, it felt as if you were wearing a coat of fiberglass insulation.

I would like to say that I felt a sense of accomplishment at the end of these tasks, the pride earned from a job well done. But I was 10 years old, 11 years old. All I wanted to do was play Nintendo and eat Doritos. I am grateful now for all these thankless, repetitive tasks. They have instilled in me a sense of constant work, a need to always be busy, that has helped me in my life and career, even if they’ve probably also contributed to the sensation that I will always, always be pushing a rock up a hill that I’ll never reach the top of. But at the time: I just wanted it to be over. Everything’s a burden for a kid.

Except. Except for one job. There was one job that I had to do that I looked forward to, every day. It was basically the perfect job for a 10-year-old boy.

Back in the 1980s, now universally accepted understandings—well, mostly universally accepted understandings—of what causes harm to our environment were not in vogue, or even all that well-known. And they certainly had not filtered their way down to Mattoon, Illinois. We did not recycle, or separate our trash into different boxes, or even make any distinctions involving our trash at all. When we were done with something, whatever it was, we put it in a trash bag. When that trash can was full, we tied up the trash bag and took it out to a trash barrel in the backyard.

And then I burned it.

Oh yeah. There is no better possible job for a 10-year-old boy than: Take this bag of random stuff, put it in a barrel, and then set it on fire. You usually wanted to take the newspaper with you—I got yelled at a couple of times for burning some coupons my mom had been saving—because that always got the fire started. And once it was going, I would just stand there and watch it burn. I have watched Styrofoam melt away and dissolve. I have watched a full spray-can of hair mousse gradually combust until it bursts. I have watched aluminum cans darken and implode.

I have set fire to moldy bread, to banana peels, to dirty diapers, to completed homework assignments, to old family photos, to baseball magazines, to broken sunglasses, to discarded light bulbs. This was my job. This made all the other chores worthwhile. What self-respecting prepubescent boy wouldn’t want a big bag of stuff to light on fire?

Suffice it to say: The world has come around on this. It is now illegal to burn your trash in the state of Illinois, and Georgia, and in fact nearly every state in the union. It’s been illegal for a long time, and lord knows it should be. It is difficult to overstate how bad burning your trash is for the environment and for the health of everyone who lives nearby.

We didn’t know that in the ‘80s, though. So I just got to burn, baby, burn. When we look back at this age of human history, I am not sure I can do a better job of describing it than, “there was a time in which we ate microwaved cheeseburgers off Styrofoam plates and then burned the whole thing when we were done.”

I still have chores to do. In many ways, the rest of my life is chores. I know burning trash was bad. The preservation of our planet is our foremost priority in the years ahead. We must undo all the damage we have wrought.

But I’d be lying if that 10-year-old boy didn’t admit he sometimes sort of missed it.

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

  1. The Ten Oldest Players in Major League Baseball, MLB.com. One of my favorite columns to do every year. Though it has been a few years now that any active player was older than I am. Miss you, Bartolo.

  2. The Super Bowl Where Everything Went Right for the NFL, New York. One of the more fun games I could remember, even if I did something against my very nature in this piece: I said something against Lovie Smith.

  3. Does Dusty Baker Have the Best Managerial Job, or the Worst? MLB.com. I generate almost all my own ideas for MLB, but sometimes they come up with one and want to see what I’ll do with it. This was one of those, and it turned out well, I thought.

  4. Review: “Birds of Prey,” Paste Magazine. I was due for a new movie review: I was getting rusty.

  5. The Generational Shift Signified by This Super Bowl, NBC News. This one got me yelled at decidedly less than the last NBC News piece did. (It’s not as good as that one, either.)

  6. Teams Most Affected by the Mookie Betts Trade, MLB.com. Got in a good Cardinals rant on this one.

  7. Discussing the First Place Illini Basketball Team, Smile Politely. Getting Craggs to respond to these in time is … hard. But it’s always worth it.

  8. DC Movies, Ranked and Updated, Vulture. Updated with Birds of Prey.

  9. MLB Opening Day Starting Pitchers, Ranked, MLB.com. I honestly do love cheap little rankings things like this.

  10. Debate Club: Best Genre Films Directed by African-Americans This Century, SYFY Wire. Lots of Jordan Peele here.

  11. Your 2020 NFL Tortured Fanbase Rankings, Medium. The yearly chestnut.

PODCASTS

Grierson & Leitch, we made Oscar predictions and discussed The Assistant, The Rhythm Section and my personal favorite Tarantino movie, Inglourious Basterds.

Seeing Red, no show this week.

Waitin' Since Last Saturday, we wrapped up signing day and lamented the basketball team’s struggles.

MAILBAG

We take one question a week around these parts: Send yours to williamfleitch@yahoo.com. This week’s, from my old Internet friend Bob Sassone:

Tell me about your writing process! Pocket notebooks? All digital? Do you use a paper planner or Google Calendar? Do you have a team of interns? — Bob

I wouldn’t say I have a writing “process.” I’d say have a routine that I will repeat over and over until I die. How do I get things done? I have a steno pad that gets new sheets updated twice a day with my “SHIT TO GIT DUN” list. It is simply a page where I put a little box next to every task I have to get done that day, from “Take Boys To School” to “Pick Up Dry Cleaning” to “Do Book Edits: Chapters 46-54” to “Fly to Miami” to “See ‘Birds of Prey’ (7 p.m.)” to “Write AL Central Preview.” Each time I finish a task, I put a check mark in the box. I update the list with a new page at lunch and before bed. The list gets smaller as the week goes along; the weekend gets only one list for both days. (That’s what I call “time off.”) I can only be as productive as I am by staying intensely organized. I have been doing these lists for more than 20 years now, and that is what the rest of my life will be: A continuing series of steno pads, updating, checking off, updating again, until the day that I die, which will hopefully happen at my desk while finishing off one last edit. I actually have two boxes full of steno pads, in case they ever stop producing them. If I ever run out, I will be lost, probably forever.

ONGOING LETTER-WRITING PROJECT!

Yep, there were a bunch waiting for me when I got home from the Super Bowl. I’m off to Central Illinois next week—Mattoon one night, Champaign for two, I’ll be at the Michigan State game at State Farm Center on Tuesday with Bryan Leitch, come say hi—but when I’m back, I promise I will dig in. You all rule.

Will Leitch
P.O. Box 48
Athens GA 30603

CURRENTLY LISTENING TO

“Windfall,” Son Volt. Son Volt is my definitive “driving alone down empty, cold, flat Midwestern roads” band. I’d be lying if I said that wasn’t one of my absolute favorite things in the world to do.

Look what time of the year it is in Athens already:

It is a beautiful thing.

And, yet, 48 hours later: It is snowing in Athens.

These are equally happy photographs.

Have a great weekend, all.

Best,
Will