OCTOBER 24, 2017
Matthew McConaughey’s house is very clean. His face is sculpted. He moves through his house turning levers and pressing buttons — we see many close ups of his hands, turning and pressing — and when he presses buttons, machines come to life. They are beautiful machines, sleek and fit to their purposes: they keep time, transport him to where he wants to go. McConaughey presses these buttons in an incredibly soothing commercial for Lincoln cars. I had not seen the commercial in a year. If Facebook’s “On This Day” feature included commercials, this is the one it would show me from October 24, 2016, and seeing the commercial again in October 2017 gives me the same wash of recognition and misrecognition my own status messages from last year do. The tagline of the commercial is: “The Feeling Stays With You.”
What feelings stay with you? I have always loved “On This Day.” Last October I wrote an essay called “Winning in the Worst Year.” Tomorrow it will show up in my “On This Day” feature, and I am not looking forward to it, because it describes two feelings—hope and dread—and the feeling that stayed with me most powerfully is not the one I would have chosen.
It’s so strange, seeing artifacts from last fall wash up against us now! The essay I wrote has a pathos that comes from being published at a peculiar historical 2016 moment: after Pussygate but before the presidential election. In the essay, I don’t really worry that Trump will win. In it, I still think that 2016 is the worst year. When the essay comes up in the “On This Day” feature it will be like everything else that October’s “On This Day” feature has brought us: reminders from a moment when we thought we had reached some bottom, coming into the now to show us that we were wrong.
The essay is also about the Cubs, seeing them triumph in the NLCS, beat the Dodgers, and head into what would be—although I didn’t know it when I wrote the essay—a riveting and joyous World Series, culminating in a victorious game seven that was the most significant sporting event I will see in my life time. I watched the whole playoffs surrounded, as the essay describes, by friends. In the essay I wrote that, “what we really hope for, in sports, is a story: we hope to feel the force of narrative, the force of meaning, a force that feels like God, impose itself on the chaotic realities of our lives.” I wrote that the Cubs’ joy in their victories felt like “bright coherence in the midst of everything that’s frayed.”
When I wrote that essay, I had not yet sat through the strange growing evening’s dread of November 9. I had not seen the fissures and fears that would open up: the dread on my students’ faces, on my friends’. I hardly can bear to itemize all that’s happened, and I say that even knowing with an intimate intensity that the people who suffered the most in 2017 were, emphatically, not me. In October 2016 DACA still seemed safe. There was an EPA and birth control security. There was still a Santa Rosa. There was still a Caribbean.
I remember so viscerally all the feelings of last October—so many evenings gathered around the television, these in-the-moment events (so different than on-this-day nostalgia): presidential debates, baseball games, Hillary’s white suit, the ivy at Wrigley, texting my mom, telling my grandmother. I was so worried. I was worried about what will happen to women, to the planet, to minorities at risk of state violence. I was worried that Cleveland would win. But I also believed! In the essay, you can see me believing that hard times are coming, and that I have found a resource in the Cubs, an encounter with possibility, that will help carry me through. It will be, you see me believing, a kind of transport. It will be a feeling that stays with me.
In the Cubs essay, I don’t talk about the Matthew McConaughey commercial, although the reason I’m thinking about the commercial now is because it appeared continually throughout last year’s baseball playoffs, and when I sat down to finally really watch a game this season, there it was again. Last year, we’d really enjoyed laughing at it: the close-up of McConaughey’s hand, and then the close-up of his beautiful satisfied face. It’s a commercial about the pleasure of things that work like you hope they will.
It is strange, in the fall of 2017, to watch Matthew McConaughey be so unchanged; to see his confidence in the order of things persist intact from the fall of 2016. I guess Matthew McConaughey can feel that way because he is a rich white man? Maybe these feelings really have stayed with him. He has a Lincoln! In my Iowa childhood, Lincolns were important: the Lincoln Towncar was the car of choice for well-to-do Midwestern farmers, and every year the high school student council had to convince four of these successful farmers to lend their Towncars to the school for Homecoming so the Queen’s court could ride in them during the Parade. They were, in my small town, a marker of success, of potential made good, of work rewarded: America.
Looking at this commercial now, at Matthew McConaughey driving off in his Lincoln, makes me think of the opposite of progress. America now feels like the opposite of what the commercial advertises. It’s a machine that did not work; at a key moment, we pressed the button, and the machine was not fit to the purpose of taking us where we needed to go.
The Cubs won a lot this year, until they lost. Losing isn’t a terrible thing for the Cubs to do, and I admit to being excited by the Dodgers. I think it will be pretty fun? I don’t know what it would be like if the Cubs’ victories were taking place this year; if it would feel sustaining or rehabilitating, or if it would be just like many other pleasures that now seem to be taking place on the other side of a dark haze of insecurity. Two days ago, “On This Day” showed me that on October 22, 2016 I had changed my Facebook cover picture to an image of the Cubs’ “Win” flag. What feels that way now? What would be the win we need? What will I leave for myself to find in fall 2018? One of the worst things about 2017 is that no one thinks it’s the worst year. The feeling that’s staying with us is that it’s just the worst year, yet.
I ended last year’s essay on a strange emotional note. I made a reference to “Dover Beach,” one of my favorite poems—maybe I did know what was coming? I was thinking in the essay about America in 2016, about Hillary, about what it would be like to win a broken thing. On this day, in late October 2017, I am thinking about what it might be like to fix a lost thing. In “Dover Beach” there’s a strange turn, in the white space before the last stanza, a movement from the general human condition of despair to the particular possibilities of love, of “being true to one another.” Does this still help us? In 2017, I have thought more often of the last lines of Paradise Lost. Maybe what we need now is not the particular words of old texts, old status messages, old essays, coming back to us, but the white space of the turn itself. On this day, we have today: we have our wandering steps and slow. Maybe we have baseball. I think one lesson is that no feeling of joy, even one that does not stay with us, can be loved enough.