Volume 3, Issue 34: Say You Miss Me

"I'm sure it seems like I'm taking my time to get back to you."

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The last vacation I took was in November 2014. Isn’t that embarrassing? What’s perhaps most embarrassing is that I was, until very recently, proud of it.

About five months after our second son Wynn was born, my wife and I flew him and his older brother to Illinois, dropped them off at my parents’ place and flew our ass to Hawaii. It had been a long year. We’d just moved to Georgia the year before and hadn’t made many new friends yet, I’d spent a full month away in Russia covering the Sochi Olympics, we’d added another human being to the household—it was a lot. So we went to Kauai. Kauai is one of those places that is so incredible and otherworldly it is legitimately surprising that it exists on earth: It feels like you’re on Mars, or some planet from Dune. Except there are pristine beaches everywhere and the weather is perfect and and all the troubles of the world seem many, many eons away. After spending about 15 minutes in Kauai, all I could think was, “I am an idiot for not living here.”

But when we came home, that was it. I haven’t taken any formal time off since. Sure, I’ve gone on weekend trips, I’ve been able to do my ordinary amount of work while being away, sometimes I frontload enough work that I can take a Thursday or Friday off entirely, I try not to open Microsoft Word on, say, Thanksgiving Day. I know that I am fortunate not to have an office job—it’ll be 16 years outside the office this March—and hope that I do not sound ungrateful. I know how lucky I am to be able to make my own schedule, and to have a stable enough career (as stable a career as you can have in this dumb industry anyway) to even ponder these sort of things. But I sort of feel like that makes it worse, right? I am able to make my own schedule … and I still just work all the time. That time away just to shut everything off and simply exist? I’m pretty sure that hasn’t happened in six years.

I come by this honestly. Both of my parents used to accrue enough unused vacation time that their bosses would regularly require them to take much of December off just to balance the ledgers. (This is also why my mother ended up retiring about a year early.) But it is one thing to have work ethic. It is quite another to be so focused on work that you blink and six years have gone by and you haven’t gone anywhere.

This was something I had been working on, and: 2020 was going to be the year of travel. My parents and I were going to see the Cardinals play in London, in a country none of us have ever visited. My wife and I, in a trip scheduled for three days after Election Day (a foolish decision, all told, even if there hadn’t been a pandemic), were supposed to go to Spain to visit the town she lived for a year after college. I wasn’t going to be traveling for the TV show anymore, so, the plan was to have more time to maybe relax a little bit, work on the next book, take some baseball trips with the boys, try to be a little more present. That was the plan. You know how plans go.

Those trips were all canceled, of course, just like yours were, just like everyone’s were. All I have to show for them are a bunch of online Delta vouchers I’m not entirely sure how to redeem. But I’ve made my peace with that. The problem is not the trips we’ve all lost in 2020. The problem is the ones it looks like we may lose in 2021.

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Of all the pain and distress that COVID-19 and our country’s incredible bungling of it have caused—death, economic collapse, years of children’s education being lost, our once-proud nation becoming the laughing stock of the entire planet—one of the hardest aspects of it remains just how on our own it revealed that we truly are. The idea of collective action has been so shoved off the table (I was reminded the other day of when we were all sharing #flattenthecurve and how quickly that disintegrated into “LIBERATE TGI FRIDAY’S!”) that every person and every family has to make life-changing decisions every day, entirely in the dark. I’ve started doing a “Is It Safe?” series for Medium, in which I take a look at a different activity (Halloween, going to a sporting event) and solicit reader thoughts on whether or not they consider it “safe.” That this is something that would be a feasible regular topic idea—guy who (barely) went to journalism school asks fellow non-experts whether an activity in the middle of the worst public health crisis of the last centurry is “safe”—is a testament to how rudderless we have truly been through all this. With no North Star to follow, we have to figure all this shit out on our own.

It ends up, inevitably, pitting everyone against each other. It is the belief of this particular household that schools should be open for in-person learning, with the option of virtual learning obviously available for those who want to take it. There is increasingly overwhelming evidence that schools do not stoke community transmission, and the short-and-long-term toll that this is taking on young children and special-needs children, not to mention lower-income and historically disadvantaged population groups, is so damaging already that we’re going to be dealing with it for decades to come. (When all these kids are in college, prepare for stories about “The Virtual Generation,” chronicling just how far behind all these kids fell behind 10 years ago.) Now, not everybody agrees with me and our family on this, including people with whom we are otherwise politically and spiritually aligned. But because there has been such chaos in the governmental response to this, there’s just a scramble for everyone not only to make huge decisions on limited information, but also to cast judgments on others who don’t land in the same place as they do. This is why you’re not supposed to let people figure it out on their own. This is why you elect people to be in charge. This is why you give everyone a collective direction.

But this “just go with whatever you’re comfortable with” approach is already extending into 2021, and I suspect it’s going to end up leading to the sense that we all have now: We are stuck in the mud, and it is up to each one of us how hard we want to spin our wheels to try to get out. I had one friend tell me he’s planning on flying to a rock festival in Europe in June; another has rescheduled her (large) wedding for April. You are reading the words of someone who has a novel coming out in May 2021 and would very much like to have a tour to promote it or, at the very least, a proper book release party. My mother turns a round-number birthday next year, and my father and I would love to take her to Las Vegas to celebrate. Is my yearly trip to talk to the students in Champaign and catch an Illini game still on? Spring Break? Little League Baseball? Wilco and Sleater-Kinney in August? When do I get to see any of my friends from out of town again? When do my parents get to enjoy their retirement? Is anything happening? Or is it going to be just like this forever?

I also know people who won’t be sending their children back to school until there is a vaccine, no matter how long it takes. And I understand where they are coming from too. We’re all working off the same terrible, incomplete information, in the same leaderless void.

The fact is that we still do not know. And that is absolutely infuriating. The tragedy is not just what we’ve lost. It is also all the more we are to lose in the months, years to come.

This week, director Alex Gibney, along with two co-directors, released the film Totally Under Control (available for free on Hulu, for rent on video on demand services), a documentary that’s specifically focused on the United States’ response to the COVID-19 pandemic. It has not uncovered a wealth of new information, no smoking gun scoop that makes splashy headlines. It simply provides a narrative structure to the complete failure that has led us to the point, a linear, easily followed, step-by-step explanation of what happened to bring us to this point, in which we today have more COVID cases in this country than we’ve ever had and absolutely zero plans on how to deal with it. (Other than, uh, herd immunity, which, for the millionth time, will cause unfathomable suffering and won’t even work anyway.) We have been in this stew for so long that it’s easy to forget just how badly we screwed this up, just how much denial there was, just how many off-ramps we could have taken but ignored. The movie will get your bile up, but it is good: It is good bile. We should be angry. We should be enraged.

And most of all, the movie reminds us of how much we’ve lost, and how much we will continue to lose, because of such staggering incompetence and hubris. There was a way to have our lives close to normal, just not until 2021, but now. Instead we’re in worse shape than we’ve been at any point. And I’m looking at things I should have done, friends I should have seen, gatherings I should have gone to, vacations I should have taken, and I’m not only devastated that I missed out on them but despairing of how long I have to go, all of us have to go, until we can have them be a part of our lives again. It is difficult to look backward at all that has been taken away from us. But, increasingly, I’m finding it even harder to look forward.

I am not sure the lesson to be drawn from all of this, other than vote. Perhaps it’s to take advantage of the opportunities we have, to not put them off, to not be so obsessed with your work, and productivity, and the daily grinds, and stresses, that you blink and six years have gone by and you haven’t taken a day’s vacation. Perhaps it’s to say yes to that party you thought about going to but probably won’t. Perhaps it’s simply being open for whatever comes, whenever it comes. Perhaps it’s just recognizing that the future is uncertain, and all there is is right now. I do not know, when this is over, if this is over, if I will be able to remain as present as I know that I should be. But I do know it won’t be six years until I take a damn vacation again.

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

  1. Lessons From MLB’s (Mostly) Successful Pandemic Season, New York. All sorts of mixed feelings about sports, and everything, in the middle of a pandemic, but I will confess I am grateful sports have happened.

  2. Joe Biden Gives a Shoutout to the Lamestains in the Wack Slacks, Medium. This was way too esoteric a headline for the internet in the year 2020, but I simply could not resist. Worth it.

  3. The Underrated Pain of Atlanta Sports Fandom, MLB.com. And I wrote this before NLCS Game Seven.

  4. The Perils of Living in a Swing State, Medium. I always thought I’d want to live in a swing state during a presidential election. I was wrong.

  5. Back Page Essay in the World Series Program, MLB Productions. They did a program this year! I’m in it, for the fifth consecutive year. It makes me happy every time.

  6. Is It Safe? Halloween, Medium. For what it’s worth: We are doing Halloween.

  7. Game Four World Series Storylines, MLB.com. Once again, there are pieces this week previewing games that have already happened. This one just went up this morning, actually, so you can still read this one fresh. Otherwise, taking a cue from last week, to describe the next four stories, I will give you the names of girls I went to school dances with at Mattoon High School. Amanda Poffinbarger.

  8. Game Three World Series Storylines, MLB.com. Kyla Sampson.

  9. Game Two World Series Storylines, MLB.com. Amy Logan.

  10. Game One World Series Storylines, MLB.com. Jennifer Hortenstine.

  11. World Series Predictions, MLB.com. Just one of the crowd on this one.

PODCASTS

Grierson & Leitch, we discuss The Trial of the Chicago 7, David Byrne’s American Utopia and Shithouse.

People Still Read Books, with David Hill, author of “The Vapors: A Southern Family, the New York Mob, and the Rise and Fall of Hot Springs, America's Forgotten Capital of Vice.”

Waitin' Since Last Saturday, recapping that sad Alabama game.

LONG STORY YOU SHOULD READ THIS MORNING … OF THE WEEK

“How Trump Changed Childhood, Hinda Mandell and M. Scott Mahasky, Politico Magazine. A moving piece about something I (obviously) think about constantly: How living through this era is changing, and seeding, our kids.

ARBITRARY THINGS RANKED, WITHOUT COMMENT, FOR NO PARTICULAR REASON

Sacha Baron Cohen Movies

  1. Borat Subsequent Moviefilm

  2. Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan

  3. Hugo

  4. Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby

  5. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

  6. The Trial of the Chicago 7

  7. Ali G: Indahouse

  8. Les Miserables

  9. Bruno

  10. The Dictator

  11. The Brothers Grimsby

  12. Alice Through the Looking Glass

ONGOING LETTER-WRITING PROJECT!

Send your mail-in ballot first. But then write me at:

Will Leitch
P.O. Box 48
Athens GA 30603

CURRENTLY LISTENING TO

“Gigantic,” The Pixies. The Pixies cameo in the Joe Biden ad, not surprisingly, sent me down a Pixies rabbit hole.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the last presidential election this week, and I went through my photo album to find the last photo I took before that November night in 2016. This was it.

Yeah, we should have known doom was coming.

Be safe, everyone. So close now.

Best,
Will