Discover more from PREVAIL by Greg Olear
Sunday Pages: Welcome to the Simulation
I’m not a big Matrix guy, but the premise of that movie—or, rather, that series of movies—is that what we perceive as our reality is in fact a simulation, and that our actual human bodies are being harvested for energy by alien life forms. We are all slaves, basically, but we don’t know it. Those who take the “red pill” choose to understand their horrible predicament, while those who take the “blue pill” exist in blissful, pre-lapsarian ignorance.
LB and I have a running joke that we are living in a Matrix. There is everywhere evidence that this vale of tears is a simulation. For example: The individual arrested for taking a single classified document, with the aim of using it to show Russia’s influence on Trump, is somehow named Reality Winner. How can that be anything other than a rift in the continuum—a glitch in the simulation; a place where the designers got lazy, like when you wander too far afield in Minecraft?
Another example happened during my hiatus. The FBI went to Mar-a-Lago to collect the classified, top secret, and code-word documents the 45th President of the United States had purloined on his way out the door—right after the finale of Better Call Saul aired. The titular Saul, like FPOTUS, is a con man who (spoiler alert) goes down. (There are even sequences in the final season of the FBI searching Saul’s fancy house!) Trump went on the offensive against the judge who signed the warrant that authorized what MAGA called a “raid.” The judge is named Bruce Reinhart, so a news anchor referred to him as “Judge Reinhold.” This prompted the real Judge Reinhold, of Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Beverly Hills Cop fame, to take to Twitter:
On Better Call Saul, Best Quality Vacuum is the place to go to buy a new identity. You call that number when you’ve exhausted all your other options. So: Here we have an actor with the same name as a federal judge, ribbing an increasingly desperate and deranged FPOTUS, by referencing a show about a con man that had just ended for good, in the Best Quality way that show could be referenced.
Welcome to the simulation!
In Chicago last month, I had a conversation with my friend Michael. He told me that he and his fiancée have a similar running joke that this current—and unfortunate—series of global events happened because all of humanity took a wrong turn at some point around 2016. Our actual selves are on a different path, their theory goes, but we all collectively act as if this wrong turn is the real reality, because how could we know otherwise? “And Julie and I didn’t start dating until after that,” he says, “so the joke is that in actual reality, we’ve never met.”
This called to mind the monologue delivered by Richard Linklater at the opening of Slacker, the seminal Gen X film he wrote and directed. He’s taking a taxi, talking to the cabbie who says nothing in reply:
So this dream I had, it was just like that, except instead of anything bizarre going on, I mean, there was nothing going on at all. Man. It was like The Omega Man. There was just nobody around. I was just traveling around, you know, staring out the windows of buses and trains and cars, you know. When I was at home, I was, like, flipping through the TV stations endlessly, reading. I mean, how many dreams do you have where you read in a dream?
Wait. Man, there was this book I just read on the bus—you know, it was my dream, so I guess I wrote it or something. But, uh, man, it was bizarre. It was like, uh, the premise for this whole book was that every thought you have creates its own reality, you know? It’s like every choice of decision you make—the thing you choose not to do—fractions off and becomes its own reality, you know, and just goes on from there forever.
I mean, it’s like, uh, you know, in The Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy meets the Scarecrow and they do that little dance at that crossroads? And they think about going all those directions? Then they end up going in that one direction. I mean, all those other directions, just because they thought about it, become separate realities. They just went on from there and lived the rest of their life. I mean, entirely different movies, but we’ll never see it, because, you know, we’re kind of trapped in this one reality restriction type of thing.
But with Michael and Julie’s theory, as with LB’s matrix-y simulation concept, there are only two separate realities: the real one, which we are no longer conscious of, and the alternative one we’re living in (suffering through?) right now: Earth and Bizarro World. Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that this soul divergence is exactly what happened. The question then becomes: when did the realities diverge? Where was the crossroads where the Scarecrow did his little dance? And no, it wasn’t the 2016 election—that wasn’t a single discernible moment. It had to be something else.
And then it hit me.
November 2, 2016. Game Seven of the World Series. And not just any World Series. Two of the most ill-starred franchises in professional baseball pitted against one another. The American League was represented by the Cleveland Indians, who had not won a championship since 1948 (the year my parents were born). The National League entrants, meanwhile, were the Chicago Cubs, who last won the Series five years before the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, and had flat-out sucked for many decades.
The Indians franchise was cursed because it was guilty of cultural appropriation. For one thing, the team was called the Indians, and for another, its logo was a caricature of a cigar-store Indian named Chief Wahoo. (They have since changed their name to the Guardians.) In October of 2003, the late, great sportswriter Ralph Wiley explained that the curse of Cubs had nothing to do with billy goats, as common lure had it, but with racism: “[T]eams that were—or are—historically dismissive and smugly cruel about its black folks—those are the teams that stay cursed.”
Right after winning the 1908 World Series, Wiley reports, the Cubs played an exhibition game against a team of Black baseball players called the Chicago Leland Giants, whose manager and star pitcher, Rube Foster, had taught his patented screwball to white pitchers who would late make the Hall of Fame. The game ended in a 0-0 tie—sort of. The story continues:
Now, the legend goes that the World Champion Chicago Cubs and the Chicago Leland Giants were locked in a 0-0 tie, going into the tenth inning. And then a couple of the Cubs looked meaningfully at the umps, who, in the bottom of the 10th, called no more strikes on the Cubs. Rube’s pitcher walked four straight batters on sixteen pitches. The Cubs won the exhibition, 1-0.
Rube figured his point was made anyway. In a way, it was. But not in the way he thought. The better team Rube had, the worse it was. No big-league team would ever play a Rube Foster-managed Chicago team from them on. . . . So, a few years later…[he] drew up the charter for the Negro National League, whose teams would include his own club, now named the Chicago American Giants, just so that inconvenient yet salient point wouldn’t be missed. . . . And for the next 10 seasons, the Chicago American Giants were the best ballclub in Chicago, if not the planet.
. . . . Baseball recalls the Black Sox of Charles Comiskey much more fondly than Rube Foster’s Giants. Don't believe it? Well, those Black Sox have had at least two movies made about them, Eight Men Out and Field of Dreams.
Rube? Squat. He eventually died in a mental ward downstate, in Kankakee, and, as the story and legend goes, he swore that no Chicago team would ever beat the Yankees, until this confusing history was somehow made right.
The Cubs would squander the 1969 pennant to the upstart Mets—one of the worst chokes in the annals of any pro sport—after a black cat was seen running on the field. They were subsequently wretched for most of my life, until that 2016 Series.
So: two teams bearing colorful curses and periods of futility that, in the case of Chicago, had lasted more than a century. That’s who was playing in the World Series in November of 2016, a few short days before the election.
Cleveland won the first game, the third game (a 1-0 masterpiece, with the only run driven in by an outfielder named—I swear I’m not making this up—Coco Crisp), and the fourth game, staking themselves to a 3-1 series lead. But Chicago rebounded, winning games five and six, and setting up a Game Seven on November 2 at Progressive Field in Cleveland. At stake was not just the world championship, but the end of a curse.
It was a Game Seven for the ages, one of the most dramatic ever played. The Cubs built a 6-3 lead, only to see it evaporate in the bottom of the eighth, as the Indians scored three runs, two of them off the usually-hapless bat of Rajai Davis, who hit a home run off Chicago’s star closer, Aroldis Chapman, that barely cleared the fence. After nine innings, the game was tied, six runs apiece, with the momentum going Cleveland’s way. The unlikely Davis homer was a sign that the home team would prevail, surely.
But before we could get to the extra innings, the clouds suddenly and unexpectedly burst, and there was a 17-minute rain delay. After the weird break, the Cubs scored a pair to lead off the tenth, the Indians mustered only a single run in the bottom of the frame, and, just past midnight on November 3, Chicago won the World Series for the first time in 108 years. The curse was lifted. . . or was it?
If Michael and Julie are right about the divergent paths, that rain delay must have been when the rift happened. That was the bit in Revelation about Heaven staying silent for half an hour. Chicago’s star slugger Anthony Rizzo called the weather event “the most important thing to happen to the Chicago Cubs in the past 100 years. I don’t think there’s any way we win the game without it.”
We were going to get Hillary in the White House, or we were going to crown the Cubs world champions. We weren’t allowed to have both. That Hillary is herself a long-suffering Cubs fan only adds a layer of agony to all of this.
That’s if you believe in curses, and simulations, and alternate realities, and rifts in the space-time continuum. I’m not sure that I do. Mighty forces manipulate how we think and feel, no question, and the notion of fate is too ingrained in human culture to dismiss perfunctorily. But just as I reject the concept of “the Chosen One,” so I must push back on the idea that some of us are born under a bad sign. I don’t want to believe in a reality where Michael and Julie never meet, where LB and I aren’t friends, where The White Lotus never got made—where you, Dear Reader, are not reading this rather long, unorthodox “Sunday Pages” and wondering if perhaps I’d taken too much ayahuasca during my three weeks away.
Yes, fascists have taken over one of our political parties, as President Biden rightly pointed out Thursday night. Yes, women and the LGBTQ community and minorities are being targeted right out in the open by MAGA politicians and thought leaders so-called. Yes, the wealthiest individuals on earth are also the ones most devoid of empathy and concern for their fellow humans (How many more times must we hear some greedy, soulless ghoul described as a “libertarian billionaire?”) Yes, zombie ice is going to raise the sea level by ten feet over the next half-century. Yes, covid is still a thing and monkeypox looms. Yes, the weather is dangerous and crazy all over the world. Yes, Donald Trump and most of his accomplices are still at large.
Despite all of the strikes against us (to continue the baseball motif), I still feel great optimism. I really do. As the President said in that historic speech: “We are not powerless in the face of these threats. We are not bystanders in this ongoing attack on democracy. There are far more Americans from every background and belief who reject the extreme MAGA ideology than those that accept it.”
He’s right. There are far more of us, and we’re better people: kinder, gentler, smarter, more inclusive, more empathic, more hopeful, more courageous, more inspirational—and our anger, unlike theirs, is righteous. “We The People will not let anyone or anything tear us apart,” Biden said. “Today, there are dangers around us we cannot allow to prevail.” Cannot, will not, and shall not.
Simulation or not, we got ourselves into this mess, and by god, we can get ourselves out.
Photo credit: Yours truly. Early morning at Hessian Lake in Bear Mountain, New York, six days ago.
CORRECTION: The judge’s last name is Reinhart, not Reinhold. The joke’s on me!