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Very early on in the pandemic, I discovered that the only way to get through it was to stop pretending it would be over soon. I had to accept that someday it would be over, but acting as if it were just around the corner was a recipe for madness. You may remember, from a previous newsletter, the concept of The Stockdale Paradox. Submitted by a reader, the Stockdale Paradox is named after Admiral James Stockdale, the former vice presidential candidate for Ross Perot who spent seven years in the Hanoi Hilton as a prisoner of war. In an interview, Stockdale was asked how he made it through those seven years. His answer reveals The Stockdale Paradox.
“You must never ever ever confuse, on the one hand, the need for absolute, unwavering faith that you can prevail with, on the other hand, the need for the discipline to begin by confronting the brutal facts, whatever they are.”
He illustrates this point by noting that the prisoners who always kept saying things like, “we’ll be out of here by Christmas” are the ones who “died of a broken heart; we’re not getting out of here by Christmas.” The message is clear: The only way to get through an interminable ordeal is to know with absolute certainty that someday it will be over … but also to be able to accept that you have no idea when that will be and thus you should act on a daily basis as if it won’t. That’s the paradox: You have to train your brain to avoid the despair of believing it will be like this forever but also train it to avoid the illusion that once we get over this next hill, we’ll have made it through. An even simpler way to put it is to believe someone when they say, “It’s all going to be OK” even though it is not, currently, OK. Optimism in the long-term; realism in the short-term. The Stockdale Paradox.
I am beginning to worry, however. Because the optimism is starting to creep into the short-term. I’m starting to imagine us getting out of this.
Two weeks ago, my parents got their first vaccine shots. My Dad got the Pfizer; my mom got the Moderna. Procuring them the shots was an absurd process. Because of his fall off a ladder last year, my Dad had a full dossier in the Piedmont MyChart system, an unnecessarily complicated patient classification that seems to exist solely to add another level of middle management bureaucracy to an already pointlessly byzantine system. People in MyChart who meet the vaccination criteria, like my father, are able to choose available appointment times. If my father had not fallen off a ladder and landed on his head last year, he would not have been in this system, and getting him on it would have required calling not his doctor’s office, but some 800 number to the MyChart corporation and then waiting 4-6 weeks. (As we quickly discovered when we tried to sign my mother up to it.) But we caught a break. Because he fell off a ladder and landed on his head.
My mother, who has not fallen off a ladder and on her head, was not so fortunate. We spent several weeks waiting for the Georgia Department of Health’s website, which was supposedly scheduling vaccines, not to crash every time we used it, and eventually gave up. We began to call around to local drug stores; we had heard that, occasionally, some of the lucky few people who secured an appointment would skip them, and if you got on a call list, they’d dial you and say, “we already got this vaccine out of the freezer and it’s going to be ruined in a half hour so get over here right now.” But that proved unfruitful as well. Eventually, we heard about a program set up by Ft. Benning (which isn’t going to be its name for that much longer), near Columbus, Georgia, where my wife grew up and where her mother lives, that had become so frustrated by the lack of federal oversight that they simply set up a Sign Up Genius account and let people get appointments via an email address. This led to my mother driving three-plus hours to a random building she’d never seen before with the only proof of her appointment, and her identity, being her Gmail address. (This has made me wonder if I can set up an appointment for email@example.com. I bet I can.) When she arrived, they didn’t even ask for her drivers license. As far as we know, they injected her with Mr. Pibb. Both of my parents have appointments for their second shots over the next fortnight, but that is assuming that there are still vaccines in supply; we have heard of spots nearby that have run out and canceled second-shot appointments, forcing people to start the whole process over again.
This is how the greatest, most powerful country on the planet attempts to power its way out of a pandemic.
But. Still. Assuming the shot was not in fact Mr. Pibb, and assuming those second shots come (perhaps a big assumption), after the two-week period where your antibodies are built up, by the end of February, my parents are going to be clear. They will have made it. I have told my parents that they are then heretofore instructed to go to Las Vegas and engage in as much high-risk behavior as possible. They will be free.
(I know, by the way, that vaccines are not 100 percent effective, and that my paraents should still wear a mask, if just for the sake of a good social example. But this “what about that half-of-half-of-one percent?” well-actuallying isn’t just obnoxious and dour, it’s actively hurting the vaccine effort. As David Leonhardt pointed out this week, this is an incredible vaccine, a revolutionary one, that we are dramatically underselling through our pedantic “yes, but what if this what if this what if this?” nit-picking. I have found that the people who are doing this are the same people who get a runny nose and Google themselves into being certain they now have brain cancer. When my parents’ antibody period is over, I want them to live their life like they did beforehand. Isn’t that the point of all this? Isn’t this what we’re trying to do here?)
There have been two primary concerns I have had, when it comes to the people closest to me, through this pandemic: I have been worried about my parents’ (and my in-laws’) physical health and my children’s mental health. I don’t want to get Covid-19, to be clear—especially now that I’ve made it this far; might as well try to finish off the no-hitter—but their lives are at a more pivotal moment than mine. They’re the ones I’m trying to get through this.
And now … my parents are almost there. In one month, my parents could be at a Cardinals spring training game, and be totally safe to do so. (They'll still need sunscreen, though.) They can sit inside at their favorite restaurant; they can fly home and see family in Illinois; they can go see an afternoon matinee. They can do all the banal things we never thought much about before. They can come back to the before time. It sounds like heaven.
It won’t be that much longer for the rest of us after that. I know that the vaccine rollout has been slow, and that the Biden administration can only do so much.
But I think it’s OK to hope?
There is a vaccine, and they will make more of them, and the president gave a speech that attempted to appeal to a collective common decency, and even though there are still bad-faith actors I truly believe most of the country believes him and wants a collective common decency too, and the person I was always a little afraid was going to blow up the world doesn’t have the power to blow up the world anymore, and the fact is that this is actually all going to end someday, and the Illini have Final Four talent, and my kids aren’t in in-person school yet but the community Covid numbers are going down and I believe they will see their friends soon, and you know what they’re actually holding up pretty well through all this anyway, and spring training is around the corner, and I just saw a great movie, and the sun is shining, and my parents are almost vaccinated, and we’ve got a roof over our heads, and everyone’s still healthy, and I think it might be all right, I really do.
It is not dangerous to hope. There is still suffering to come. We have not turned the corner yet. But I can see it in the distance. Can’t you? It’s so wonderful. And it’s right there.
Maybe I need to revisit that Stockdale paradox again. But I do not want to.
WEEKLY BOOK UPDATE: 15 WEEKS TO LAUNCH
Our new rubric is here at The Will Leitch Newsletter, featuring weekly news, updates and pre-order reminders for How Lucky, my novel that comes out May 11.
We are in the “blurb gathering” phase of book promotion, in which you seek out authors more accomplished and famous than you are to give you quotes about how much they love your book, or at least claim to, so that you may use those quotes in press material and potentially on the book jacket itself. Here are the people who have blurbed my previous books I have written so far:
Life As A Loser — Tom Perrotta (who wrote the foreword) and Ken Kurson (who, uh, just got pardoned by Donald Trump).
Catch — James Frey, John Green and Ned Vizzini.
God Save the Fan — Sally Jenkins, Jeff MacGregor, Robert Kurson and Jeff Pearlman
Are We Winning? — Chuck Klosterman.
So far we have three blurbs for How Lucky. The first was the one I told you about last week, from Chris Bohjalian, bestselling author of The Flight Attendant. The second is from Kevin Wilson, the bestselling author of The Family Fang, Perfect Little World and last year’s Nothing to See Here. Here’s his blurb:
“It's a testament to Will Leitch's ability that he can blend seemingly disparate elements – mystery and illness and humor and football – and come away with something so winning. How Lucky asserts that "the world is a terrifying place these days" and the novel explores those terrors quite convincingly, yet I was heartened by the depth of Will Leitch's writing, his obvious love for the world and what it could be. He imbues his hero with a kind of hopefulness that comes from seeing the worst and finding some way to keep living.” - Kevin Wilson, New York Times bestselling author of Nothing to See Here
I hope that blurb inspires you to pre-order the book this very moment, but even if it doesn’t, you should know that it did make me feel good. (Kevin Wilson, other than this temporary bout of insanity, is actually a genius.)
(Just 15 more weeks of this to go, sorry.)
Here is a numerical breakdown of all the things I wrote this week, in order of what I believe to be their quality.
Seven Ways Trump Changed Sports Forever, New York. I hadn’t thought the last few New York pieces were that great, but this one I got right.
My Interview With Chuck D, MLB.com. So, this year, I’ve gotten to interview Jeff Tweedy, Armando Iannucci, Don Hertzfeldt and Chuck D. The pandemic hasn’t been all bad.
Joe Biden Would Like You to Calm Down, Medium. I decided that the best way to write about the inauguration was to try not to swing too big. I do think this is right, though.
Donald Trump Thinks Things Are About to Get Better, Medium. So, for once, I’m taking him at his word.
Drew Brees, Tom Brady and Athlete Mortality, GQ. My weekly Monday columns continue.
May These Two Days Be As Boring As Possible, Medium. They really were! They were awesomely boring!
The Thirty: Best Extension Candidates For Each Team, MLB.com. I have a sense that Jack Flaherty is not going to be particularly eager to listen to the Cardinals’ pitches for an extension, if they’re even making them.
Grierson & Leitch, man was it great to be back with Grierson this week, talking Locked Down, The Dig and American Skin.
People Still Read Books, no show this week, definitely taping next week.
Waitin' Since Last Saturday, no show this week.
LONG STORY YOU SHOULD READ THIS MORNING … OF THE WEEK
“At the Inauguration, Amanda Gorman Wove History and the Future Into a Stirring Melody,” Dwight Garner, The New York Times. I was as enraptured as everyone else was by Amanda Gorman at the inauguration, and Garner, one of my favorite critics and critical thinkers, captures it perfectly. I love the "A sleeping limb was tingling back into action” line.
ARBITRARY THINGS RANKED, WITHOUT COMMENT, FOR NO PARTICULAR REASON
The Four 2021 Movies I Have Seen So Far (Dorkfest for the First Half of January 2021!)
A Glitch in the Matrix
ONGOING LETTER-WRITING PROJECT!
It is fun to receive letters from three weeks ago. Lots of “Good luck with the Georgia runoffs!” notes coming in. Write me at:
P.O. Box 48
Athens GA 30603
CURRENTLY LISTENING TO
“Get On Up,” James Brown. Everybody has a “I’m in really fucking great mood right now” song. This has always been mine. It is sort of amazing that James Brown existed, right? If you needed another reason to be sad about Chadwick Boseman, here he is as James Brown. This is probably more charisma than one man should be allowed to have.
Remember to listen to The Official Will Leitch Newsletter Spotify Playlist, featuring every song ever mentioned in this section.
If you look very closely in this video, you can see a very happy Will Leitch (in a black coat) and William Leitch (shorter, wearing a white Georgia jersey) in the background cheering very heartily. Sports always matter, at least a little, folks.
Be safe, everyone. The pages, they be turning.