Newsletter 202: Being Around for a Bad Time in History

I’ve decided to start putting some of the best newsletter essays here on Medium, so more people can read them. You’re still better off just subscribing. This one is from March 2020, just a couple of weeks ago, right after the coronavirus changed our lives together. Everything before that feels like the Before Time, so I figured I”d just flash back to that one.

There was a time in my life when I thought the biggest thing that was ever going to happen to my generation, in my adult world, was the O.J. Simpson trial.

This had been the whole Generation X thing, right? That we had no wars during our formative years, that there were no causes, that we’d all been raised as latchkey kids, reared by “Saved by the Bell” and “Beverly Hills 90210,” that our parents didn’t seem to stand for anything at all, that the only thing you could be certain of was that it was all bullshit. I was 15 when the Berlin Wall fell and 25 when September 11 happened. I remember being at the 2000 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, writing about the protestors there, and the only thing anyone there was certain of is that there was zero difference between Al Gore and George W. Bush, and that Mumia needed to be freed. And these were the activists! The central cultural figures of that age were Kurt Cobain and Tupac Shakur, the former someone whose primary message was that everything needed to be burned to the ground and that life was nothing but pain, the latter someone whose political convictions were widely derided or ignored while he was alive and only appreciated after he was gone. It was hard to find anything to grab onto. History felt like something that happened to other people. The only constant was that none of this really mattered.

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It was disorienting, this lack of historical footing, the sense that the world was passing by us without making much of a mark. Our parents had the Vietnam War. Their parents had World War II. Their parents had World War I. What was our war? What was our fight? What would we be remembered for? Was the only point of all this to just get a job, move up the ladder, become part of the system and then spend the next 50 years slowly dying? When was life going to start?

I was so young, and so stupid. So much was happening. So much was locking into formation. I just didn’t see it. I think it’s OK that I didn’t see it. I realize now that not seeing it was a privilege. It was a gift.

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When you are young, you always wonder What It Must Have Been Like. My grandparents, raised during the Depression: What was that like? The Vietnam War: What would my draft number have been; what if I’d been about to get married; would I have stepped up to fight or join the fight against the fight? The Oregon Trail. World Wars. The JFK assassination. The Plague. The American Revolution. Seeing a nuclear bomb dropped on an actual city with actual citizens … by the good guys? (The good guys, right? Right?) What was that like? Implicit in that concept was that no one in the future would care to wonder what it was like in this particular moment. What was it like, Will, to live in a time of Nintendo and Kurt Loder and White House blowjobs?

This concept is no longer a concern.

Now, a time when every moment would not be a referendum on humanity and its increasingly terrifying future feels like a blissful nirvana. We live in times that are far, far too fascinating. In the last 20 years, the first of this century, we have seen:

  • A contested Presidential election decided by a partisan Supreme Court;
  • The most destructive, fatal terrorist attacks in American history;
  • Multiple, ongoing global wars;
  • A total acceptance of and capitulation to the Internet, and the creation of social media;
  • The worst economic crisis since the Great Depression;
  • The election of the first African-American president;
  • The separation of the United Kingdom from the rest of Europe;
  • The election of Donald fucking Trump;
  • The rapid deterioration of the planet;
  • Oh, UFOs came and none of us had time to notice.

And now this. And now this.

I would say that the arrival of the coronavirus, and the upheaval that has already happened and the worse upheaval that is clearly coming, has an unprecedented apocalyptic feel to it, but what hasn’t felt apocalyptic over the last 20 years? It has become incredibly clear how unprepared our government and institutions are for this moment. But psychologically? Psychologically I’m pretty sure we’ve been here for a while.

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We have survived all of those things, and on the whole, we will survive this. (Those of us who actually survive, that is.) But when this pandemic is over — whenever that is — it will be yet another toll taken, another chip taken out of the wall. I am not sure whatever doesn’t kill us is making us stronger. I think it’s just making us more tired. It is wearing us down to a nub.

Which is our problem to deal with, our cross to bear. But another thing that’s happened in the last 20 years is that, while 20 years ago I was living in a shabby West Village apartment eating Bagel Bites and playing NCAA Basketball 99 all night, now I have two little boys who live in this house and are watching every single thing that my wife and I are doing in response to all this. To them, this isn’t a corrective after years of feeling disaffected and historically lost. This is their goddamned life. This is all there is. This is all they know.

Their mood in the current situation is excellent; they’re helping us, actually. William is bummed that there are no sports to watch on television, but otherwise they are cheerful and normal and unaffected. They know that there’s not going to be school for a few weeks, and that our Little League season has been postponed, and that they are going to spending a lot of time in the house and in the back yard, and that they have to wash their hands all the time, but otherwise there is no panic or fear or worry at all. They are just being little boys. If anything, they’re happier. They get to hang out with their parents more and watch television a little more than they used to. Washing their hands constantly and missing school for a while is just something they’re doing right now. They’ll be doing something else later. They’re kids. They roll with it.

But there has to be a toll of all this, not just on them, but every kid. The constant pressure we’re all under, the sense that everything could break down at any point, that the ground always shifting under our feet, the perpetual fear that there’s always something lurking around the corner … we can do our best to protect them from it, but kids tend not to miss much. My sons have lived through so much already. Is this steeling them for the future, or eroding away the blissfully ignorant gift that is childhood? And do I really want my sons steeled for anything?

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I am sure my parents had the same worries about my sister and me, just like every parent through every generation. But it does feel different now. The thing about the end of history is that it’s only the end for those of us who were already here, who have been through so much already, who have had so much of our story told. The kids are just supposed to be beginning. And all this is how their story is starting.

They’re playing basketball in their room downstairs right now. I want to wash my hands right now and then go down there and hug them, let them know it’s all going to be all right, that I can keep them safe from what’s coming. But I can’t, and I’d be doing that more for me than for them anyway. We’re just gonna do our best to keep everybody together and surrounded by the people who love them. We’re not going to act any differently than we have to. I’m gonna keep the door shut down there and let them play. It sounds like a spirited game going on. It sounds like they’re having fun. I’ll leave them be. They’re in there, and they’re playing basketball, and they’re safe, and that’s all I can do and that’s all that matters. The world will have plenty of time for them later. We will hold it off the best that we can. It’s the best gift we can give them.

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Writer, New York, NYT, MLB, WaPo, others. Founder, Deadspin. Author of four books, with fifth, “How Lucky,” coming May 2021. https://williamfleitch.substack.com

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