Volume 3, Issue 23: When You Wake Up Feeling Old

"Who knows anything? I don't know."

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By the time I reached the second semester of my senior at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, I was essentially done with school. I’d finished all the requirements of my journalism major, I’d set up my first job (a one-year fellowship, anyway) in Los Angeles after graduation and the Daily Illini had taught me the most important lesson of college, which is that my life’s goal was to write every day, from then on, until I died. The hard part was over. All I had to do was finish up my 12 credit hours (the minimum required to be a full-time student and, by careful design, the precise number I needed to graduate), show up on time for graduation and smile for all the pictures on the Quad.

The classes that second semester were unchallenging, also by design. One was a two-hour bowling class; one required watching experimental films, including Andy Warhol’s Empire, which is simply eight hours of the Empire State Building. (That’s it. That’s all the movie is.) And then, because it was a genre I’d never tried before, I signed up for a three-credit-hour Intro to Short Story writing class. I wrote stories all the time! Short ones should be easy! And it wasn’t until I had locked in my schedule that I realized this class ran from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. on Friday mornings.

I made it to the first class, on the first day, and realized I was not going to enjoy this class. It was a workshop class, which meant there was a lot more talking about writing going on than actual writing. (Generally par for the course for writing courses, I’ve found.) I was the only senior in the class, which was awkward and further contributed to the notion that I was over this already. And the worst part was of course that it was 8 a.m., on a Friday, during the last semester of my senior year of college. I was hoping to just be getting home around 8 a.m. on a Friday, not listening to kids with braces write about how much they missed their Nana.

So, despite the fact that I needed just these last 12 hours of school to earn my degree, ostensibly the reason I was there—the reason my parents had sent me there, the first Leitch boy ever to go to college, they were all so proud—and all I had to do was simply show up for two months, get my Gentleman’s C and get on with my life … I just stopped going. I pretended I didn’t have a class on Fridays; I acted like it was simply not part of my reality. I never went after that first class.

A month in, I ran into that class’ teacher in the halls of Gregory Hall, waved cheerfully and said, “See ya Friday!” He stopped me and said, “Oh, I assumed you quit my class. Yeah, you should drop it. It’s way too late for you to receive credit.” I whined and complained and acted as if some horrible crime had been committed to me, how could he do this, I’m just trying to graduate, man. Then I went out drinking with my friends like I always did and stopped thinking about it. Whaddya gonna do?

Graduation came, and I wore my cap and gown like I’d earned all my credits, and nobody asked or called me on it, and as far as they knew, I had earned my bachelor’s degree in print journalism from the College of Communications at the University of Illinois that very day. But I didn’t. I just acted like I did. I was a 21-year-old kid who wasn’t thinking about anything other than getting through the next day, about anything other than what was right in front of my face. I didn’t care about the parents who had worked 50-plus hours a week for 20 years to send me to school, or all the other kids for whom college with culmination of years of struggle and never took it for granted for a second, or anything else at all. I was only thinking about me. I was a college kid. “Only thinking about me” is a large part of the job description.

I ended up taking a three-hour correspondence course, “Introduction to Shakespeare,” that I finished up from Los Angeles the next year to complete my degree. When asked, I always claim that I graduated from the University of Illinois in 1997. But that’s not what my diploma says. It says 1998. It says the truth. All because I didn’t want to get up at 8 a.m. on a Friday for a couple of months. All because the only thing that mattered was me.

This is not the only, or even the most, selfish, reckless thing I did as a college student. It is only the one I am telling you about.

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It is an ongoing joke down here in Athens that every time you see a U-Haul, you hear the theme from Jaws. The students are back. And they’re bringing hell with them.

The only downside of living in a college town, the saying goes, are the students. Students have returned in droves over the last two weeks, their parents surely eager to get them out of their house after months of unexpected “quality” time, pleased that the money they’ve been paying the University of Georgia will not be used for sleepy Zoom sessions from their children’s old bedrooms. There’s a frat house right on my running path here in Athens, and for the last few months, and the entire pandemic, it has been empty, with UPS boxes stacking up at the front door and the occasional deer running through the parking lot. On Thursday, that lot was full of pickup trucks, and they already had the beer pong table out. A stray dog licked beer off the front porch. It was back to the business of college life.

If you’re not up on your local COVID statistics, here’s the thing about Clarke County, Georgia, where the University of Georgia is and where I live: A whole bunch of people here have coronavirus.

The virus is rampaging through the country, of course, but it is particularly rampaging in Georgia. We’re currently sixth in the country in cases, behind five states with considerably larger populations, and going in the wrong direction. (There are clear reasons for this.) The surge in coronavirus cases over the last two months is the reason that my children are not in school, the reason my parents are locked in their house when they should be enjoying their retirement, the reason there is almost certainly not going to be a college football season this year (I’m hopeful, but let’s not kid ourselves), the reason I am currently not allowed to enter the state I was born and the state I lived in for more than a decade without quarantining for two weeks. There are signs that we might be reaching a plateau after the recent surge in cases. But it is still very bad.

And there is every reason to believe that the influx of students is about to make everything worse here. The University of Georgia already had the third-worst campus outbreak in the country, and there are tens of thousands of students coming in from all around the state this week, many from counties experiencing worse outbreaks than Clarke County is. The protective measures in classrooms are, uh, suspect, and what they’re doing with the dorms is truly shocking, but as far as these things go, much of the concern is wrapped up in the behavior of the students. You have already seen bars jam-packed in downtown Athens, so much so that the mayor of Athens instituted a 10 p.m. last call (until a judge struck it down). There are parties going on every night, deep into the night. You do not have to look far to see a college student pretending none of this is happening.

I do not say all this to be a doomsayer about our current crisis. It’s bad here, but it’s basically bad everywhere, for reasons that are painfully obvious. Wallowing in the misery and anxiety does no one any good, and it probably just makes everything worse. You can call out the corruption and incompetence while still trying to maintain as positive an attitude as you can. I won’t be dragged down by this, and I don’t want to drag you down in it either.

What I do want to do is to try to put myself in those college kids’ shoes. I’m not talking about the me of today, the one terrified that his third and first grader are going to be locked in their homes staring at a computer screen for “school” at the worst possible stage for their development, the one who wants to keep his family safe, the one who stays up at night staring at the ceiling and worries about it all crashing down. I’m talking about the me of 1997, the 21-year-old me, the one who would put his entire degree and four years of work at peril because he didn’t want to get up for an 8 a.m. class. I’m talking about the kid who didn’t know shit from shinola but thought he was the smartest person in the room, the one who thought he and everyone else he knew was indestructible. I’m talking about the stupid kids we all once were.

Part of the point of college—I would argue a large part of the point—is that it is a way station between childhood and the real outside planet, a place to figure out this knotty planet on your own, to be exposed to people and viewpoints and experiences you hadn’t been exposed to before, to make mistakes, to have that one last time in your life that you can feel special and unique and cocooned in a way that you will never be again. This has legitimate value: I learned more about myself during those four years than any other four-year span of my life. But the reason I learned so much, of course, is because that whole time, I was only thinking about myself. That’s what college is. It’s why we resent college kids when we’re older: Who has time to think about themselves anymore? Asking a college kid to have a worldview outside the bubble of college is to ask them not to be a college kid at all.

How is a college kid going to view this situation? In a perfect world, the altruistic thing would be to put your personal comforts aside and think about the larger picture, your obligation to society and your fellow humans. I have no doubt that some college students are doing this, and I commend them for it. But considering how many adults are having trouble doing that very thing, blaming college students for not having “the world outside myself” being the first thing on their mind every morning seems narrowly punitive. I suspect that most college kids, with their college kid lizard brains, are making the following calculation:

I am not in a risk group for this virus. No one I see on a daily basis is in a risk group for this virus. The people I know and care about who might be in a risk group for this virus are not people I see regularly. The virus is bad. I hope I do not get it. But I only get to go to college once. And I do not want to look back at my college experience and think, “I didn’t get to have any fun in college at all because I was being responsible.” I have my whole life to be responsible! Do not ask me to be responsible now.

I think this is wrong. I think they are being selfish and blinkered and reckless. But I understand.

And I cannot say with anything approaching 100 percent certainty that, were I in their position, at that age, that I would not do the same thing. I did many stupid things back then. Who am I to say, now at age 44, that this would not be another of those stupid things? I can wag my finger and cluck my tongue at them all I want. That’s what old people do, after all. We tell them to get off our lawn … because we know what a lawn costs and the sacrifices we made to have one, dammit. If they thought like 44-year-olds with children and older parents, they wouldn’t be college students anymore.

One of my vows as this pandemic has gone along is not to be a shamer. This is an impossible time for everyone, and I have no right or authority to be walking around obsessed with how other people are doing everything wrong and I’m doing everything correct. Yes, wear a mask, distance, use common sense, please do all those things, but I cannot let myself be consumed by those who don’t, no matter how much they may be the reason this continues on and on and on and on. I can just take care of me and my people and just hope everybody else does the right thing. College students in this college town are going to do the wrong thing, and they are going to do the wrong thing in mass quantities in the town I live in and love, and they are going to do it very soon. I can’t do anything about it. And I can’t say I was any different … even if the worst stakes I faced was a boring Shakespeare correspondence course. Youth may be wasted on the young. But the thing about youth is that you’re supposed to waste it. You’re supposed to be foolish. It doesn’t make it OK. But it does make it very, very human.

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

  1. I Tried to Capture What It Feels Like to Watch Sports Right Now, New York. This was a challenging one, but I do think I got it right.

  2. Orioles Fever, Catch It! MLB.com. They of course lost four straight the minute this was posted. Also, I miss my baseball team.

  3. Athens-Clarke County Needs a Plan to Return to School. It Has One, Right? Athens Banner-Herald. Writing for the local paper about schools! Boy am I ever Dad Dude now.

  4. Five Teams That Are Already Postseason Locks, MLB.com. If there is one, of course.

  5. The Thirty: First Week Surprises, MLB.com. The Marlins had played three games at this point, so this wasn’t easy.

PODCASTS

Grierson & Leitch, we did a big mailbag show this week. It was fun, and therapuetic. We also discussed “Blue Ruin.”

Waitin' Since Last Saturday, so, will there be football this year? We try to figure it out.

LONG STORY YOU SHOULD READ THIS MORNING … OF THE WEEK

“How the Pandemic Defeated America,” The Atlantic, by Ed Yong. I know I’ve been pubbing the Atlantic a lot lately, but this, their newest cover story, is devastating in every possible way. And infuriating, start to finish.

Also, this was a lovely, sad piece in The New Republic about the Wisconsin man who wrote a book The Washington Post called “the worst novel ever published in the English language.”

And to close, here’s a John F. Harris piece about nuclear war that reminds me I should re-link you to my terrifying piece about nuclear war because sure that’s something else we need on our minds right now.

ARBITRARY THINGS RANKED, WITHOUT COMMENT, FOR NO PARTICULAR REASON

Paul Thomas Anderson Movies.

  1. There Will Be Blood

  2. The Master

  3. Punch-Drunk Love

  4. Phantom Thread

  5. Magnolia

  6. Boogie Nights

  7. Hard Eight

  8. Inherent Vice

ONGOING LETTER-WRITING PROJECT!

There are some truly wonderful letters coming my way through all this. Thank you. Keep them coming!

Will Leitch
P.O. Box 48
Athens GA 30603

CURRENTLY LISTENING TO

Mastodon, “The Czar.” Remember that time in the early 2010s when Mastodon felt like the best band in the world? No? Just me?

The boys found a dead bird on the street this week, and every time I look at a picture of them looking at it, I think, “Yep, still 2020.”

Be safe, everyone.

Best,
Will