Volume 3, Issue 48: Sunken Treasure
"Surely there's somebody who needs it more than me."
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There isn’t a day that goes by anymore that the word “normal” does not come up in one context or another. It’s the goal we’re all working toward, the place all plans ultimately revolve around and point toward. The kids’ options for next semester, a budgeting meeting for upcoming news coverage, family trips to baseball games, marketing concepts for a novel that’s coming out in a few months, party possibilities for a big round number birthday for your mother that’s just around the corner … they’re all based on the assumption that, at some point, things will be “normal.”
The thing about the pandemic is that it turned thinking about everything that happened before the pandemic into hazy nostalgia. I find myself dreaming of experiences I had in the past and reveling in how glorious they would be if I got to have them again.
A few years ago, while in New York City for work, I went to a Yankees playoff game by myself, drank a few beers, listened to music in my headphones in the Standing Room Only section, high-fived gaggles of drunk cops when the Yankees scored, then left and had a late dinner with old friend, where we sat around a table and drank wine and told old stories and argued amiably about the pressing issues of the day. It seems like the perfect evening now.
My high school class reunion was a few years ago. It was the first one I’d been to in more than a decade, and I saw so many people I hadn’t thought about in years but instantly felt grateful and honored to know. We played dumb Remember When? trivia games and gossiped and told funny and sad stories of old friends and those poor souls we’d lost in the years since. We joked about who got fat and who got rich and who got arrested, and we lamented what has happened to our old town since we’d graduated. It was cold in the building and all the booze was cheap and flat, but it couldn’t have been a better time and we all promised we’d do it again in five years. I really was struck by how happy I was to see all of them. It seems like the perfect weekend now.
My son went to his first baseball game at Busch Stadium in 2018. The Cardinals let us on the field beforehand, and he met Willie McGee and Harrison Bader, and most importantly Fredbird, and there were three rain delays, and we spent the time waiting out the weather just walking around the stadium and looking at it from different angles, and William said he was so happy and wanted to stay there forever, and it ended up being a seven-hour-day at the ballpark and by the end we were soaked and giddy and exhausted in that wonderful way that you are when you are completely spent. That night, after the game, the Cardinals fired Mike Matheny: William woke me up in our AirBNB, jumping on the bed, so excited to tell me. It seems like the perfect morning now.
I’ve always walked my kids to school every day. We’d go into the building, and I’d goof off with other kids in the hallway, and tell funny stories to the teachers, and sometimes I’d be able to meet one of my sons for lunch in the cafeteria, and we’d chat with their friends and I’d get a little glimpse of what their world looks like without their parents, a world that’s just going to get larger and larger as the years go by. It seems like the perfect afternoon now.
One time I walked into a bookstore and browsed around for a while and then walked across the street to sit at the bar and have a beer and watch the second half of a soccer game. Then I stopped by the grocery store, where I ran into somebody I knew and talked about boring, banal bullshit for a few minutes and then came home and didn’t think a thing about any of it. It seems like perfection now.
These are all things that, in Month Ten of the pandemic, I find myself screaming for. I look back at them and I am deeply nostalgic, wistful, lamenting how much I took them for granted, guilty for not soaking them in and appreciating how good I had it, how much I’d miss them. They are what I am looking forward to most for when this is over. They are what will happen when we get back to “normal.”
But then … the thorny problem of what “normal” is rears its ugly head. When are my kids going to be back in school to roam the hallways? (Even the three weeks they were in-person this school year, before they, ignoring all available evidence, shut it back down again, parents weren’t allowed in the building.) Sporting events are unlikely to make it back to full capacity in 2021. It’ll be a long time until anyone stops for casual chats in the supermarket again. The Cardinals can only fire Mike Matheny once. “Normal” is not just around the corner.
And what was “normal” back then, anyway? I have made those memories hazy and gauzy, retrofitted them into this ideal world of the Before Time. But of course nothing was actually perfect then. Those were moments of pleasure and happiness, but they came in the middle of incredible strife and discord themselves. There is always something poking in around the edges, a scary monster with big teeth that will bite you. The cruel truth—and, even, quiet mercy—about nostalgia is that it’s an illusion, that it filters out the anxiety and fear and worry and instead allows you just to remember the good times, the happy parts, the stuff you miss. I’m remembering those things as “normal” because I want to. But life is never normal. It’s always crazy. It’s not usually this crazy. But maybe I’m just saying that because we’re still in this. If I’m waiting for a moment for everything to settle down and be “normal,” I’m going to be waiting a very long time. Probably my entire life.
This comes with good news, though. And that’s that we don’t have to wait for everything to be normal again to have moments that we’ll never forget. Two weeks ago, my son Wynn and I, just to get out of the house and have some time to goof off to ourselves, checked into a hotel for a night. We had dinner on the roof, with heating lamps and a big slice of cake he stuck up his nose, and we went back to the room and jumped on the bed while listening to Nirvana. He fell asleep with Hobbes in his arms and a smile on his face. Last week, my other son William and I went to a basketball game, saw Georgia win on a last second shot, stopped by a sushi place on the walk home, sat on the outside deck and just talked about the game and life and sports and all of it. He even decided to try eel: He hated it. Now all he talks about to his brother is how he ate eel. He even talked about it in show-and-tell in virtual school this week. That’s a memory that I have, and more to the point, he will have, long after this is over. When William looks back at that memory, he will not think about how it came in the middle of a global pandemic, with unprecedented social discord, with every aspect of human life disrupted, with everyone just so exhausted and rundown and yet frenzied, all of the time. He will just remember that he watched a game with his dad and then ate something gross and then walked home. And it will seem like perfection.
Life right now is not a waiting game until normalcy returns. It’s just more life, more moments, more chances for memories that will last the rest of our lives, memories that will seem more perfect than they really were. I cannot wait until this is over. But I also will not wait until it is over. Life’s going on everywhere, right now. We must try to take it all in big huge gulps, as long as we can.
WEEKLY BOOK UPDATE: 14 WEEKS TO LAUNCH
Every week here at The Will Leitch Newsletter, we count down the weeks until the release of How Lucky, my novel that comes out May 11. This is the spot for weekly news, updates and pre-order reminders.
Richard Russo’s Empire Falls won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2002, beating fellow finalists The Corrections and Colson Whitehead’s John Henry Days. It was made into an excellent HBO miniseries five years later—which you can watch on Hulu—starring Ed Harris, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Helen Hunt, Robin Wright and, in his final on-screen performance, Paul Newman. Russo also wrote Nobody’s Fool, starring Newman, and released his first novel in a decade, Chances Are … , in 2019. He is one of the most celebrated and beloved authors on earth.
And, remarkably, he loves How Lucky. I honestly do not know how the book even got to him; I certainly wouldn’t have known where to send it. But I woke up last week to the following quote from my editor in my inbox:
“What’s more thrilling than a fictional character speaking to us in a voice we haven’t heard before, a voice so authentic and immediate - think Huck Finn, Holden Caulfield, Mattie Ross - that we suspect it must’ve been there all along, that we somehow managed to miss it? Daniel, the protagonist of Will Leitch’s smart, funny, heartbreaking new novel How Lucky, is just such a voice, and I’m not sure it will ever completely leave my head, or that I want it to.” —Richard Russo
I don’t know if anyone’s going to buy this book, or whether it even matters to be writing a book at this particularly moment in human history. But holy shit it’s almost worth writing the damn thing just to have Richard freaking Russo say that about it.
Here is a numerical breakdown of all the things I wrote this week, in order of what I believe to be their quality.
It’s Time For Everyone To Start Hating Tom Brady Again, GQ. I am a longtime Tom Brady defender, and I accept all scorn and tomatoes thus thrown in my general direction.
How Do You Stop People From Being Wrong All the Time? Medium. The perpetual torture of the terminally online.
The NFL Ended Up With Exactly the Super Bowl It Wanted, New York. This is the first Super Bowl in a while I have zero preference as to who wins. It’s also the first Super Bowl in a while I won’t be attending.
Ten Questions About Illinois Basketball, Smile Politely. Written before the AWESOME Iowa game last night.
The Weirdness of Pandemic Nostalgia, Medium. May was a long time ago.
Checking In on 2020’s Surprise Teams, MLB.com. All pointing up except … sorry, Baltimore.
I Suddenly Remember What Day It Is, Medium. I miss this early-pandemic meme.
MLB Postseason Droughts that Could End in 2021,MLB.com. The J.T. Realmuto move doesn’t hurt.
One Move For Every Team in the NL Central, MLB.com. Written before the AWESOME Arenado news.
The Legacies of Trump in Sports, NBC News. I love writing for NBC, but I don’t think I nailed this one.
Grierson & Leitch, we previewed the Sundance Film Festival and then discussed The Insider and the forever hilarious Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story.
People Still Read Books, no show this week, taped next week’s show yesterday.
Waitin' Since Last Saturday, no show this week.
LONG STORY YOU SHOULD READ THIS MORNING … OF THE WEEK
“Twitter’s Priceless Gift to Joe Biden,” Natasha Korecki, Politico. My old Daily Illini colleague Natasha Korecki just became the top White House correspondent for Politico, and this piece is a perfect example of how good she is.
ARBITRARY THINGS RANKED, WITHOUT COMMENT, FOR NO PARTICULAR REASON
North American Sports Leagues Championship Sporting Events, Ranked.
Stanley Cup Finals
College Football Playoff
ONGOING LETTER-WRITING PROJECT!
An influx of new people who have never written before in the last fortnight. This is excellent! Be the next. Write me at:
P.O. Box 48
Athens GA 30603
CURRENTLY LISTENING TO
“TVA,” Drive-By Truckers. This is one of the Jason Isbell DBT songs that, somehow, never made it onto an album. (It’s on their bootleg/outtake album The Fine Print.) It is an incredible song, about family memory, about how small investments bringing huge payoffs, and, quite straightforwardly, about how government intervention can set a foundation for generations and save people’s lives. This version is great, but the one Isbell and the band recorded at the Shoals Theater in 2014 should be considered the definitive one. (I cannot recommend that purchase enough, by the way.)
Remember to listen to The Official Will Leitch Newsletter Spotify Playlist, featuring every song ever mentioned in this section.
One year ago:
We will be back there soon.
Be safe out there, all.