Newsletter 29: Hiding From Real Life Is Much Easier Than Engaging With It, Which Is How We All Lose
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 newsletter is from November 2016, when we were all still dealing with what had just happened. I have found myself wanting to recede from the world a lot lately, and this is a good reminder that that helps no one.
Friday morning, in between writing a silly column about future MLB MVPs and my review of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, my wife and I went to my son’s school. He wasn’t in trouble or anything: He’s in pre-K, it’s tough to get in too much trouble in pre-K. We were there for the Barrow Dash, a fundraiser in which every student raises money for each lap they can run in 15 minutes. My wife and I volunteered to help count the laps. After every lap, you marked a number on the back of their shirt. At the end, you count up the marks. William ran 30. We were very proud of him.
I’m often extolling the value of work in this newsletter, but I’ll confess: One of my guiltiest pleasures of this gig — my secret shame — is how little I have to deal with the real world. Sure, I interview people, and I go to games and movies and political rallies and everything that requires me to have something to write about. But I don’t work in the real world. I deal with predictable situations with people I’ve met before in contexts I understand. Go to game. Write about game. Go to movie. Write about movie. Go to fascistic nightmare gathering. Write about fascistic nightmare gathering.
But real work, that helps real people, requires engaging with the masses of humanity. My mother has been an emergency room nurse in Mattoon, Illinois, for almost 30 years now. Every day, she meets strangers, often at the worst times of their lives, at their weakest and most scared, and it’s her job to help them. Her job requires patience and flexibility and empathy and also a steely resolve: You can’t be an ER nurse without knowing both how to ease someone’s suffering and how to kick someone’s ass out of the room. The emergency room is a public utility, which means people treat it like their house and its employees like The Help. You need an iron fu — king spine to work in the ER. It’s your job to see humanity at its worst and still believe it is good. That it is worth helping.
I find schools like this as well, particularly public schools, which Barrow is. There will be those who find it politically advantageous to argue against this point, I am certain, but I have found that the vast, vast majority of people who work at schools do so out of a desire to do good for the world, for children who need their assistance. You obviously don’t become a teacher for the money, or the pride, or the always loving and open embraces you get from parents. (I once asked a teacher friend if she ever had a parent yell at her. She said, “It might be easier for me to count the ones who haven’t.”) They do it because they care. Why else would you do it?
And it can get awfully ugly in there. I don’t do ugliness well. When we walked into the school, there was a kid crying behind the front desk. What was wrong with him? Was he hurt? Was he sad? Was he being a brat? Did a mean kid punch him? How do we get him to stop? If I worked at a school, I would be obsessed with these questions. Or at least I would be for the first day, after which I would realize that someone is always crying. And then I’d have to quit, because I couldn’t handle it. It takes a certain type of person to be able to handle that every day, to willfully engage in the emotionally traumas of strangers, in order to help them out and make the world a better place. Sometimes it doesn’t work; heck, often it doesn’t work, I am sure. But they go out there every day and try. It takes courage and willpower and just a huge goddamned heart.
And it’s not difficult to see the reward. We were there for one hour, and I fell in love with every single kid. They ran so hard! They would get tired halfway through, then they’d rally. They’d get in little mini-races with other kids, then forget they were in them and wander off. They’d high five me, and call me “Mister.” They’d go up to my wife, who they’d only met five minutes earlier, and yell “I’m going so fasssssssstttttt!” They’d bump into a wall and start crying, then get up and forget that they’d just hurt themselves in about 10–15 seconds.
Three brief anecdotes from the dozens I got in an hour.
- One fourth-grader saw the Cardinals hat I was wearing. “Booo!!!” he said, auditioning for a job as a Deadspin commenter. “I love the Cubbies! I’m Jake Arrieta!” He showed off his Cubs jersey, which he was wearing under his running shirt. I told him that I was happy for his team and that they now had eight championships to go to catch up with us. This caused my wife to frown, but the kid just laughed.
(I’m sure he’ll forget he was ever a Cubs fan whenever the Braves get good again.)
2. The gymnasium was blasting pop music over the loudspeakers, and when Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” came on, three kids stopped running entirely and started shaking their hands and spinning around in a circle. They did this in unspoken unison and then got right back to running like it never happened.
3. When one of the races ended, I witnessed the following exchange.
First Kid: I went so fast!
Second Kid: I know! I went so fast!
First Kid: We were BOTH so fast!
Second Kid: I know! So fast!
Look: I know that “see the world through the eyes of innocent children!” is a cliché and reduces the infinitely complex planet we live into something infantile and cloying. I know that the fact that a bunch of cute kids had a blast together for an hour and I got to be there for it does not change the world in even the slightest way. I know that a lot of these kids are gonna grow up into jerk adults. I know we’re still probably all screwed.
But c’mon: I won’t ask for forgiveness for needing this. Just an hour of a bunch of goofy-ass kids of all backgrounds and races and religions and nationalities running and laughing and hugging and falling down and fighting with me about baseball, not caring about anything but being silly and having fun while cheesy pop music played at maximum volume as adults laughed and laughed and laughed. It didn’t fix anything. It doesn’t mean “everything’s going to be OK, how can a world where this exists be bad?” It’s still a scary world, one that feels like it’s getting meaner by the second. But it was replenishing. I cannot recommend it enough. Turns out there’s benefit to the real world. There is deep value in engaging. I think I might just keep at it.