I took my eight-year-old son to a birthday party on Friday afternoon, a party for a close friend of his that he hadn’t seen since the pandemic began, a friend he’d said goodbye to before spring break in March and had then vanished from his life. The party was carefully put together to play by all the rules—outside, masks, plenty of distance between parents—but the second the kids got out of their cars, they all tackled each other anyway because they are eight and they are boys and they were all puppies who had been tied up for far too long.
As my own kids piled out of my car, I spoke to the party’s host, a very nice woman I’d seen at countless ballfields and PTA mixers, back in the Stone Age when those things existed, I couldn’t help but bring up what was weighing on my mind most at the moment, which was that the president of the United States was, any second now, about to be airlifted to the hospital because he was suffering serious complications from a highly contagious, potentially fatal disease that he had spent the last seven months of everyone’s lives pretending wasn’t much of a big deal.
“Wow, crazy day, huh?” I said.
She looked at me, puzzled. “What’s that?”
“You know, the President,” I said. “He’s going to the hospital.”
Through her mask, I saw her face slack with confusion. “Oh, is he?” she said. “[My husband] was telling me he had Covid, but I didn’t know he was going to the hospital.” She shrugged. “Huh. Well, I’m sure he’ll be fine.” She then looked past me. There was a truck behind me in the drop-off line. It was time for me to leave.
“Pickup’s at 7:30!” she said. “It’s so nice seeing the boys together, isn’t it?”
She went back to watching boys frolicking in the sunshine. And I went back to my phone, desperate for a medical update on a person I have never met and do not like.
I pay too much attention to the news. I’m a journalist, of course, so it’s partly my job. But my news consumption far outpaces my professional obligations. I’d be reading everything I can get my hands on even if they weren’t paying me for it.
And this last weekend was one of peak news consumption. I was riveted to every turn, from the president’s doctor avoiding questions about the health of the leader of the free world, to the Chief of Staff giving “anonymous” quotes that directly contradicted the doctor, to the president posting a picture of himself signing a blank piece of paper, to the doctor returning and admitting that he lied to the American people, to the president (who I feel obliged to repeat here has a highly contagious and potentially fatal disease) deciding to ride around in an air conditioned vehicle with public servants paid to protect him. My moods veered and jerked with every plot twist, and I was welded to Twitter all day, as my two sons ran around our backyard on a gorgeous fall day, waiting for someone, a father perhaps, to throw them a football and toss them in some leaves.
I am hardly alone in this, of course, and it remains remarkable, five years later, how deeply invested all of us remain in the daily moods and whims of a racist old crank with crippling daddy issues. But while the dangers of social media have been more than apparent since we discovered the cat meme, there was something particularly jarring, and instructive, about this weekend. History was made every second this weekend, living history, a president in crisis, a nation in limbo … and I couldn’t help but think I’d be a happier person, father and citizen if I didn’t know anything about it at all.
It reminded of this brilliant Reductress piece.
This is the trick, isn’t it? You want to be an informed and aware citizen, one that isn’t hiding from the stresses and anxieties and important issues of the age. But you also want to, you know, have a life worth living. The world is full of glorious moments, large and small, that I’m missing, that so many of us are missing, because of the unrelenting drama of watching a man and his administration flail about wildly. His signature achievement is constantly holding our attention at all moments. It’s sucking us in, and to no larger value: It’s not like his presidency is providing some sort of civic education … or even that he’s even accomplished all that much. At this point, all we’re doing is staring at him, and all he’s doing is making us. It’s not making us smarter, or more educated, or more apt to make good decisions. It’s just making us sadder. And it’s making us miss out on so much.
What am I learning from this, anyway? Is there anything Donald Trump — just saying his name anymore is starting to feel like I’m handing over a part of myself for free — could do or not do that would change my vote in November? Could anything change yours? This incessant thrashing about is providing no larger light, no overarching wisdom. It’s just taking little seconds off our life, bit by bit, seconds that we will never get back. It’s an endless vortex, a black hole, a gaping maw that will never be filled. We’re giving him, and all of this, so much. Too much.
I find myself so envious of my son’s friend’s mother, a woman who has made the decision to keep all this at arm’s length, to not learn anything more than she needs to, to focus only on what she can see and touch and have some effect on. She’s not looking at Twitter: She didn’t even know he was going to the hospital. What’s wrong with her? That’s news from 25 minutes ago! Where’s she been? It’s no wonder she’s happier and able to appreciate what’s in front of her. That’s all she’s looking at. Who can blame her?
There are obvious setbacks to this approach: There is a whole planet outside of herself, and myself, that does have valuable lessons to teach, to her and to the rest of us. It shouldn’t be ignored. But right now, in this moment, I’m the fool, the one glued to his phone, the one going down Wikipedia rabbit holes for “dexamethasone side effects” and “remdesivir remedies,” the one parsing every Maggie Haberman tweet like it’s the Dead Sea Scrolls. I’m the one wasting my time, energy and spirit. It is me, not her, who is missing everything.
Will Leitch will be writing multiple pieces a week for Medium. He lives in Athens, Georgia, with his family, and is the author of five books, including the upcoming novel “How Lucky,” released by Harper next May. He also writes a free weekly newsletter that you might enjoy.