Volume 3, Issue 7: Can't Stand It
"You know it's all beginning to feel like it's ending."
|Will Leitch||Apr 18, 2020|| 4|
We’re running your Quarantine World stories every Wednesday. Send them to me at email@example.com.
In recent years, I’ve become a regular reader of books about September 11. Is this me slowly becoming your uncle who won’t stop telling you about books he read and Smithsonian channel documentaries he watched about World War II? I suspect it probably is.
But I’ve read ‘em all, from Der Spiegel’s Inside 9-11 to the great 102 Minutes to Lawrence Wright’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Looming Tower. (I even read that weird graphic novel of the 9/11 Commission Report.) My quarantine book—I am a slow reader, and I’ll be lucky to finish one or two no matter how long this goes—is Mitchell Zuckoff’s Fall and Rise: The Story of 9/11, which (it seems so far) is the definitive, most comprehensive account of every aspect of that day, start to finish. It’s exhaustive, and exhausting. I suspect it’ll end up being the signature volume.
What’s fascinating, and instructive, about the stories of September 11 is how, no matter the book or the author, the story always follows the same basic structure. Certain books may focus in on specific stories, or spend more time on one subject than another, but if you’re telling the story of what happened on September 11, you’re essentially telling four clear, separate stories.
The Hijacking of the Planes.
The Crash of the Planes.
The Burning of the Towers.
The Collapse of the Towers.
There are of course millions of stories within those four—which is why there are so many books about the day—and you can also tell the story of what happened leading up to September 11 (which is what Wright’s book is about) and the story of what happened after. But if you’re telling the story of that day, those are the four big pivots. Each story leads into the other. The narrative arc is linear, and easily understood.
But it did not seem that way at the time. At the time, in the fog and madness of everything that was going on, it was total chaos. No one was thinking about the “story” at the time, how this would be looked back upon by history. They were just trying to survive it, to navigate whatever was coming next. There was no logic in the moment. Everyone was just stumbling in the dark. Only years later were we able to provide some narrative structure to it—to make it make sense. Those four moments: People take planes, people crash planes, towers burn, towers fall, they’re the pillars of how an event that changed the world forever are understood. You read these books 19 years later—19 years later holy shit—and you want to call out to each person in them. Don’t get on the plane. Lock the cockpit. Don’t go back up to your office. You can’t save anyone above the crash zone. Go north. We know now what they didn’t then. We know how it all turns out. We are voices from the future that could save them. If only they could hear us.
We Americans are already only a month-plus into this pandemic, and the question is not whether this is the biggest event of our lives since September 11 but rather whether it is in fact bigger. I tend to think it is, for several reasons. While September 11 affected everyone, it certainly affected people who lived in New York (and to a slightly lesser extent Washington DC) in an outsized way, but this has touched every American no matter where you are from, and it will continue to only expand across the country. The death toll already exceeds that of 9/11 by a dramatic amount. The reactions to this event are far less unified than they were 19 years ago and being stoked and inflamed by an unstable, increasingly cornered and desperate president. (Imagine if George W. Bush had immediately blamed Democrats and Bill Clinton for the attacks.) And mostly, this has stopped American life in a way that September 11 never did. They had a freaking live WWE event two days after 9/11; baseball, David Letterman and the Staten Island Ferry were back in six days; in 10 days, The Onion was back making brilliant fun of everything. The aftereffects of September 11 were felt for years, are still being felt today, but the event itself? The event itself was self-contained—quick and brutal. It was blunt trauma it took years to recover from, if you ever did.
That is not what this is. This is trauma, to be sure, but it’s quieter, longer-reaching, wider in scope and span. It can be even sort of calm; there are certain days, when the sun is shining and the birds are singing, that you can walk outside and it can feel like nothing is out of the ordinary at all. It is a series of 9/11s, but slower, more subtle, and even somehow more unpredictable. It is also, like 9/11, preventable—perhaps even more so. But a large part of the slow-motion trauma is watching us collectively keep stepping on rake after rake after rake. To be clear: I have been impressed, on the whole, with how Americans have responded to such total upheaval, how there has been a collective response despite the lack of a clear leadership or a single, focused message. It can be frustrating hearing certain people try to rush us back, to belittle the collective sacrifice for our collective good for the sake of their own self-aggrandizing ideologies, but it is worth remembering that taking this pandemic seriously is not, in practice, a partisan issue. Pictures of idiots on beaches and lunatics at courthouses circulating over social media should not make us forget that almost all of us are doing the right thing, or trying to.
But you can start to see the seams starting to show, the threads coming loose. This has gone on long enough that we are all starting to inch back toward our previous biases and divisions in ways that are going to make this harder rather than easier. (My New York editor and friend David Wallace-Wells is as scary as ever on this.) We’re still looking for quick fixes rather than investing in the testing regimens we should have put in place weeks ago. A third of the populace may be out of work soon. Somehow, the country feels less stable now than it did two weeks ago. There is a fear that the center will not hold.
This will eventually be over. Progress has been made. But I don’t know how much better I feel right now than when this started. Do you?
But I don’t know if I’m right about that, not yet, and neither do you. And that’s because we’re still in the middle of this story. This narrative does not have its pillars yet. When the COVID-19 books all come out in 15 years, and I’m almost 60 (!!!) and reading every single one of them, there will be that same specific structure, hitting all the same beats as the September 11 books do now. But we don’t know what that structure is yet. We’re still living it. What will the pillars be? It feels, from an American perspective, the first pillar has to be that Wednesday night in March, the night of the President’s address, of Rudy Gobert, of Tom Hanks, the night when a vaguely worrisome story from the international pages became terrifyingly real and urgent in our daily lives. But after that? I don’t know what will come next in that story. I’m not sure whatever will come next has even happened yet. That’s what is so disorienting about this, what makes it, in a way, even harder than September 11 was. We’re all reeling from trauma, and not only do we not know when the next trauma is coming, we don’t know even know if the last one is over yet. There’s nothing to get your arms around. It’s trying to grasp smoke.
It’s possible it’s not as bad as it seems. It’s also possible it’s a lot worse. We don’t know, because we’re still in the middle of it. The not-knowing is what’s hardest. Every day is an entirely new reality; the person who is writing this will be different in a week than he is now, and so will the person who is reading this. The ground shifts beneath our feet, the world transforms in front of our eyes, and all we can do is blink wearily, and then shake our heads clear and trudge forward. We don’t have a historian who can tell us how this is all going to turn out. We just have to strap in, buckle up, hunker down and ride it out. That’s scary, for all of us. But there’s also something downright valiant about continuing to move forward anyway. I’m not sure life has ever felt more uncertain than it does right now. But it’s going to go on anyway, regardless. Might as well get up and move forward.
To face each day, to get gnaw through it, is an act of courage, people. So hey: Cut yourself a break. Maybe your hair is going wild, maybe you’re not keeping your fitness as tight as you might like, maybe the kids aren’t getting the top-shelf home schooling of professionals, maybe you’re drinking more than you should, maybe you’ve lost someone close to you, maybe you’re on the front lines fighting this, maybe you’re grousing about the family whose house you’re constantly delivering packages to, maybe it’s getting upside down on your, maybe it feels like it’s all falling apart. But goddammit you’re still upright, and you’re still going. You should give yourself the credit for that that you deserve. We all should. Someday they’ll write books about this moment. Someday you’ll read them. Someday you’ll look back, finally knowing the whole story, and be proud that you made it—that after all of it, you’re still fucking standing.
Here is a numerical breakdown of all the things I wrote this week, in order of what I believe to be their quality.
Better Know a Player: Ruben Sierra, MLB.com. I had a great conversation on Jeremy McCarter’s podcast about fables and morals a couple of weeks ago, breaking down what the real meaning of “The Tortoise and the Hare” is. I basically stole that conversation for this column.
Baseball Year in Review: 1983, MLB.com. This is mostly for Orioles fans.
The Last Dance, and the History of the “30 for 30” Franchise, New York. I am sorry for all my friends and colleagues at SB Nation and New York who were furloughed or laid off this week. These are some of the most talented people I have ever met.
The Thirty: Every Team’s Best Player of the ‘90s, MLB.com. They’ve done a good job dressing these up and making them look great lately …
Grierson & Leitch, we looked back at the movie year of 1977, and also “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Goodbye, Lenin!”
Also, check out this amazing thing a Grierson & Leitch listener made this week: Grierson and Leitch Bingo!
BRAIN EXPLODE. (Though I feel obliged to pointed out it is spelled “M-A-T-T-O-O-N.”)
Waitin' Since Last Saturday, we checked in during what was supposed to be G-Day Week.
Seeing Red, no show this week.
LAUGH THAT I NEEDED THIS WEEK
When in doubt … turn to The Naked Gun.
We take one question a week around these parts: Send yours to firstname.lastname@example.org. I am actually running low on these, so send ‘em on, or I’ll just nix this section of the newsletter. (I might do it anyway, all told. I’m thinking of doing a long read of the week instead.) This one comes from Nick Hansen:
My brother just bought me a copy of "1001 Movies to See Before You Die." I'm not quite sure where to start with it. I've seen a good number of the "all-time best" Godfather II, Citizen Kane, JFK, etc... What are some good under-the-radar classics I should start with?
This feels like a Grierson question, but I’ll bite. Here are 10 movies that you absolutely must see, if you have not seen them. These are not necessarily my 10 favorite movies of all-time. But they are movies that don’t usually make all-time best-movies-ever lists but seem pretty immortal to me:
Cool Hand Luke
Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Shadow of a Doubt
Stop Making Sense
Zero Dark Thirty
See now I have about 85 more I want to include.
ONGOING LETTER-WRITING PROJECT!
I actually wrote a piece about this letter writing project this week. It remains very satisfying. So send 'em:
P.O. Box 48
Athens GA 30603
CURRENTLY LISTENING TO
“After the Gold Rush,” Neil Young. I have never been that much of a Neil Young person, which is my problem, not his. But he’s another one of those artists that, for reasons I can’t quite put my finger on, has suddenly made it into heavy rotation during Quarantine Time. It’s a reflective time.
My mask is the only good mask.
Be safe, everyone.