Volume 3, Issue 14: If I Ever Was a Child

"I was tied up like a boat, on a button like a coat."

The show that always got me when I was a teenager was The Wonder Years. That show aired from 1988-93, basically capturing my age 13-18 years, and I don’t think I missed a single episode. I was in love with Winnie Cooper (like everybody else), I thought Jack Arnold and my dad were basically the same person and my best friend in high school even looked a little like Paul Pfeiffer, or at least everybody at my high school thought so, much to Grierson’s eternal irritation.

The entire premise of The Wonder Years is that it was a coming-of-age story about a “normal” suburban family that went about their everyday lives against the backdrop of one of the most tumultuous times in American history. The series begins in 1968, with the narrator (Daniel Stern) looking back on his childhood with the perspective of both time and context, and spans until 1973. The Arnold parents have attempted, by moving to the suburbs and raising their children the way they were raised, that they can stave off the outside world and keep their loved ones close, safe and protected. But the real world keeps creeping in around the edges. Kevin’s sister gets involved in the peace movement. Winnie’s brother is killed in Vietnam. Kevin’s brother joins the army. The ground beneath them is constantly shifting.

Kevin and his friends are still kids, though. I remember a key line that the narrator says: “Outside our house, it was 1968, but inside it might as well have been 1953.” Kevin’s parents know how much the world was on fire in 1968, but the kids can’t really understand it, because they’re kids: They have enough problems getting through the day already. So the parents give them a bubble to live in, where they are safe and loved and can simply concentrate on the Herculean task of growing up. The kids will learn what the world is eventually. Why thrust it upon them before you have to? The point of childhood is that you get to be innocent.

But how long until that innocence becomes complicity? How long do you get to be protected? How long until you tell a kid he/she has skin in the game? One of the reasons The Wonder Years lost steam at the end of its run is that it never really resolves that question. The show became too intoxicated by its nostalgia, and it let Kevin and his pals stay in that hazy, safe world of memory; the show never had the fortitude to truly let that real world in. The story always remains just that personal, family story. Kevin ends up kissing Winnie in the back of that car, and the circle is complete. In the end, it might as well be 1953 after all.

Which is a shame. It might be 1953 in that car. But once they get out of it, it’s 1973. And the world’s a lot bigger than the Arnolds.

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It has been two years since I wrote the cover story for New York’s “How To Raise a Boy” issue. The original premise of that story was “raising boys in the age of Trump,” which was, essentially, about trying to teach boys empathy, respect and restraint (rather than being narcissistic bullies like the president) while not, as I put it in the piece, “stopping my two sons from doing normal boy activities because I’m trying to prove some sort of post-graduate thesis.” But as the piece grew and expanded, its subtext veered closer to what I personally think about most when raising children: How much do I tell them?

This came up first and foremost when Trump was elected. I quoted a friend in an original version of the piece: “We’ve limited exposure to [Trump] at pretty much every level. We don’t watch the news until [the boys] are in bed, I switch to music on the radio when they get in the car. There’s a window here where I think if we stay away from him and again just go back to teaching basic human decency, we may be able to make Trump nothing more than a weird, foggy memory from their childhood.” I understood this—this is mostly how I experienced Reagan, who wasn’t nearly this bad—and deployed that same strategy myself. The boys knew that Donald Trump was a bad person who was hurting people and shouldn’t be the President, but that’s something they mostly gathered from context clues on their own anyway; we didn’t hand them out literature or anything. I didn’t want them to get bogged down in it. I wanted them to go about the business of being kids.

But now: Now it looks like we are living through 1968. And I do not want this house to be 1953.

I understand the privilege of these boys, just like I now understand mine. I have never had to sit them down and have The Talk about how to handle yourself around police, how to make sure you make it home alive. I have never had to worry about being profiled, or being the victim of a racist joke. I have never had to fret about anything like that, because they’re white boys—they’re automatically treated like the default. But another part of that privilege is thinking that if we just raise them to be good people, and kind, and compassionate, that that is enough. That “going about the business of being kids” idea feels inadequate, even actively harmful. I want them to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. And part of that is them understanding that there is a problem.

The author Jennifer Harvey spoke about this on “All Things Considered” this week.

My daughter is told, "Police are safe — go find one if you're in trouble," but her African American cousin is learning complicated messages about the police from his parents. Those differing messages mean they can be great friends for a while. But eventually, the depth of their friendship will erode because my white child will not be able to identify with her African American cousin or her African American friends.

White Americans have to teach our kids how to identify with that experience and how to be good friends to black and brown youth as they grow up. That requires us teaching them about racism. And it requires us modeling anti-racism, which is something a lot of white Americans really struggle with.

The kids are smarter about this than I realize. I asked my older son William what he knew about George Floyd earlier this week, and he showed a greater understanding of what happened, why people are angry and sad and what the marchers in the streets every night are trying to express, than I could have possibly realized—a greater understanding than a lot of adults I know. The boys even are catching on to subtler inequalities. They have seen how, when we went to Zoom teaching in the spring, most of their African-American friends from class weren’t on the videos with them; they were already being left behind. My children are not stupid, and even during a pandemic, they are less sheltered than I think.

But that doesn’t mean I can just have total faith in their ability to figure out the most complicated, difficult issue of our time on their own, particularly not if they’re going to have someday to be part of the solution. I do not want them not having their awakening moment in their 20s like I did, not realizing until it may have been too late how good I’ve had it, how my blithe lack of awareness didn’t just make me clueless, it made me complicit. Not talking to them about what’s happening, about what we have to do, about what we must know about ourselves, it’s not keeping them safe: It’s keeping them ignorant. It’s hiding something important from them. It’s parental malpractice.

I do not know the right way to go about this. Like all parents, I’ll be flailing around blind in the dark. But this movement—still going strong, every night, still teaching us something new each minute—requires each of us to do what we can in our own lives. I can listen. But I can’t sit this one out. And they can’t either.

I am finding a lot of hope in all of this. Two of the best pieces I read this week, and the strongest voices, had that hope in common. The first was an Ezra Klein interview with Ta-Nehisi Coates, in which Coates, whose writing is as clear-eyed and despairing about racism and America as anyone’s I’ve ever read, says, “I see hope. I see progress right now, at this moment.” He describes talking to his father, who lived through the tumult of the late ‘60s and tells him that this movement is “much more sophisticated. “

The idea that black folks in their struggle against the way the law is enforced in their neighborhoods would resonate with white folks in Des Moines, Iowa, in Salt Lake City, in Berlin, in London — that was unfathomable to him in ‘68, when it was mostly black folks in their own communities registering their great anger and great pain. …

I would argue that [feeling] has been nationalized. I don’t know that everybody in America feels that way, but I think large swaths of Americans now feel that Trump is the police. And they feel about Trump the way we feel about cops: This is somebody that rules basically by power. I would prefer that situation to 1968, where we’re alone in our neighborhoods and we know something about the world and we know what the police do, but other folks can’t really see it — and if they can, they’re unsympathetic. I would prefer now.

The second was Jenna Wortham’s Times piece on why these protests have been different, why they have captured something that had been so hard to capture before, and why people are not only listening, but actively pushing for change. And why now was the moment it happened.

The pandemic added its own accelerant to the mix. For roughly three months before Mr. Floyd’s death, American were living in a state of hypervigilance and anxiety, coping with feelings of uncertainty, fear and vulnerability — things many black Americans experience on a regular basis. Information about how to avoid the virus was distressingly sparse and confusing as local and federal officials sparred about the severity of the pandemic and how best to contain it.

Meanwhile, a clearer — and bleaker — picture of the country began to emerge. The spoils of privilege among some was in stark contrast to the lack of it among others. While some Americans fled cities to second homes, millions of others filed for unemployment and formed lines at food banks. Empathy for the plight of essential workers, a category in which black people are overrepresented, swelled tremendously. Data revealed that black and Latinx communities were being disproportionately ravaged by the pandemic.

At the same time, social distancing meant much of daily life — school, work, meetings, parties, weddings, birthday celebrations — was migrating to screens. It seems we’d just created newfound trust and intimacy with our phones and computers when the gruesome parade of deaths began a procession across them. Ahmaud Arbery was chased down and killed in Glynn County, Ga., on Feb. 23. Breonna Taylor was in bed when the police entered her apartment and sprayed her with bullets in Louisville, Ky., on March 13. Nina Pop was found stabbed to death in Sikeston, Mo., on May 3. Tony McDade was gunned down by the police in Tallahassee, Fla., on May 27.

By the time outrage and despair over Mr. Floyd’s death filled our feeds, the tinderbox was ready to explode.

I am severely underqualified to talk intelligently about these issues. But I am listening. And I am hearing hope. Aren’t you hearing hope? I believe we will burn through this and come out stronger on the other side. And I’m gonna make sure my family doesn’t hide from it. It’s not 1953. It’s not 1968. It’s 2020. Someday my children are going to look back at this time, someday they’re going to tell their own children what it was like. I want them to be proud of what they tell them. I’m going to try to make sure they are.

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

  1. Is It Even Appropriate to Be Thinking About Sports Right Now? New York. I have personally struggled with this question quite a bit!

  2. The NFL Has a Lot of Freaking Nerve, NBC News. Well, it does.

  3. Baseball Year in Review: 2013, MLB.com. Until the World Series, this one was pretty fun!

  4. Better Know a Player: Brandon Webb, MLB.com. I saw Webb throw a shutout in Atlanta once that felt like the platonic ideal of how to pitch a baseball game.

  5. What to Watch Instead: Wonder Woman 1984, Vulture. Anytime I get to write about Superman 2, it’s a good day.

  6. What to Watch Instead: The Green Knight, Vulture. This is your reminder to watch A Ghost Story.

  7. This Week in Genre History: X-Men: First Class, SYFY Wire. They actually decided not to run this because they felt it didn’t fit the national mood. I totally disagree; clearly, what the country needs to be doing right now is watching X-Men: First Class.

  8. The Thirty: The Top Draft Picks For Every Team, MLB.com. Anytime you get to mention Brien Taylor, it’s a good day.

PODCASTS

Grierson & Leitch, two new movies, The High Note and The Vast of Night. Also, I saw Andrei Rublev for the first time, and it’s pretty amazing?

Waitin' Since Last Saturday, no show this week.

LAUGH THAT I NEEDED THIS WEEK

I think this is the funniest Lonely Island song? Yeah, it is. I love it when he fact-checks her about the cave.

LONG STORY YOU SHOULD READ THIS MORNING … OF THE WEEK

“How Trump’s Idea for a Photo Op Led to Havoc in a Park,” The New York Times. I cannot stop reading this story. Every detail is insane. I think this moment, when we look back, will end up feeling like a real pivot point. In a good way, ultimately. (Also witness another great long read about that very topic, from Franklin Foer.)

ONGOING LETTER-WRITING PROJECT!

Got a good batch of them this week. Send 'em:

Will Leitch
P.O. Box 48
Athens GA 30603

CURRENTLY LISTENING TO

“Alive,” Pearl Jam. OK, so I have to eat it a little bit here. In the wake of this deeply dispiriting story about Nirvana bassist Krist Novaselic—who actually thought that shitshow on Monday was “strong and direct'“—I will take my medicine and give love to Pearl Jam, who is an infinitely inferior band to Nirvana (as I’ve been telling Pearl Jam fans since 1991) but, I gotta give ‘em this, did not end up with Eddie Vedder becoming a Fascist. (Quite the opposite, actually.) So fine. I like the new remix they did of this song for the anniversary edition of Ten. And Eddie Vedder did not turn out to be the shithead Krist Novaselic turned out to be. Christ. If Cobain were alive, he’d never stop hitting Krist in the head with his guitar.

(That section was for you, Cetera.)

Please be safe out there, everyone. I think we’re feeling stronger every day.


Best,
Will