The Hammersla Exposition No. 10: Everybody Had a Hard Year
It’s not just holiday season, it’s holiday card season. The most conscientious and photogenic among you have done your part to prop up the U.S. Postal Service, sending along your festive greetings – adorned with pictures of yourselves (and your pets) in cozy sweaters or perhaps from your most recent vacation.
Sometimes these cards even include printed newsletter-type updates on each of the family members, outlining the year’s highs and lows and where-are-they-nows. I admire this and wish dearly that our family could do it, too. This is the sort of thing that normally falls under my list of household responsibilities, because I usually have very specific ideas and standards for what kinds of communications go out under the Hammersla name.
And I suppose it wouldn’t really take me too long to do it, although I struggle, off the top of my head, to think of things for which inclusion in a family newsletter would be justified. It’s not humility, exactly – I think we’re a great family – but it feels like an unwinnable challenge to figure out which tidbits get elevated to “cardworthy” status and which are just the miscellaneous things that happened to us. And a big part of my hesitancy is an intense feeling of insecurity and competition, like I need to be able to describe our current lives in a novel or entertaining way.
It’s obviously too late for us to get anything printed or mailed out in time, but perhaps this will suffice:
Eleanor Roosevelt is quoted as saying, “Great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events. Small minds discuss people.” This is the kind of quotation that reflects very well on the original speaker, but makes anyone who cites it seem like a pretentious jerk. Nevertheless, I try to live up to it in my everyday life. So consider this newsletter a better reflection of my current status than any holiday card. This is also pretentious, but it’s easier to explain to my wife than a Christmas card outlining a nuanced defense of moral relativism.
The Big Idea
America is divided. This notion has progressed beyond mere provocation to conventional wisdom. Conventional wisdom is not quite as iron-clad as undisputed truth, but we are getting close: the phrase “America is divided” yields approximately 25 million hits on Bing. “America is awesome” yields 225,000. Incidentally, “the Kardashians are divided” yields 8.6 million hits, suggesting that “America is doomed” (6.9 million hits).
 The official search engine of The Hammersla Exposition
It is no less an article of conventional wisdom that Abraham Lincoln was speaking gospel when he opposed the secession of the southern states, saying “The principle itself is one of disintegration, and upon which no government can possibly endure.” Lincoln believed that secession was not only unlawful but physically impossible, not to mention kind of rude.
Far be it for me to question one of our nation’s most revered philosopher-statesmen, but I kind of wonder if maybe he’s a little bit wrong. It should be noted, in all seriousness, that his opposition to secession was almost assuredly motivated by and in service of a more fundamental opposition to slavery.
I am not a constitutional scholar and cannot opine on the “legality” of secession. It seems to me that if, say, Texas, wanted to leave the union, they could revolt and the federal government could choose to say “see ya” without being hauled into the Hague or whatever. The formal paperwork is a necessary consideration, of course, but my mind drifts more to the practical consequences of secession (or, perhaps more accurately, partition).
Because, folks, it’s sure hard to see how we keep going like this. The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance recently characterized the United States as a “backsliding democracy” (that is, trending toward authoritarianism) while smarter people than me have called it a “failed democratic state.”
I’m uncomfortable laying that at the feet of any one political party, so let’s just say that there is an escalating tendency among the minority party to delegitimize majority rule and the process of small-d democracy itself. Structural deficiencies in the construction of our government have been met and thoroughly exposed by increasingly sophisticated political strategies like obstruction, manipulation and disinformation. And these are mere prelude to violence.
Maybe politics is just window dressing for other socio-economic differences. The point is, all we ever do now is fight. Maybe it’s better for the kids if we split up.
So: what if the United States got a divorce? The red states could get that bachelor pad they’ve always wanted, with a gun rack and a racecar bed, and the blue states could grow out their hair, get their nipples pierced and flirt harmlessly with someone who “gets them,” like Belgium.
Every time I fantasize about it and the idea of a majoritarian Senate and Supreme Court, I remember all the problems with the idea:
It doesn’t really work, geographically. Proposed partition maps tend to be either ridiculously blunt or hopelessly granular. Even the most reasonable map I’ve found looks like a literal Rorschach test:
Attempts to make it simpler would only prompt mass migration and dislocation. As that one goes, we’re already looking at a whole bunch of Gaza Strip-and-West Bank-type situations, only with more pork.
My take: it’s hard to deny that the rot begins at the local level, making any clean break practically impossible. If we can overcome that, I’m probably most intrigued by the idea of Canada just appending the U.S. west coast, northeast corridor and upper Midwest. But is that kind of like asking your too-polite aunt if you can crash on her couch for a while? And besides, I’m not sure I could even grow to like hockey.
It doesn’t totally solve our problems. Sending troublemakers to opposite sides of the room doesn’t necessarily make them better citizens. It might even cement those value differences into doctrines. Just ask India and Pakistan if there are still hard feelings.
My take: We have a lot of problems. But the big one we’re trying to solve here is that too many people feel they are being governed by people and institutions that do not represent them. This would help solve that problem, at least somewhat. And then at least we could develop consistent, durable policies to address our differences. The next question after that, though, is: would we inadvertently be creating two rapidly decaying democracies?
It would be anarchy. Once you start carving up the country, where do you stop? How can you stop? You can easily imagine states, counties and random villages subdividing like cell mitosis. Before you know it, it’s the middle ages again, with decentralized fiefdoms and inbreeding clans and smallpox. Grim.
My take: There would almost certainly be a period of chaos, perhaps culminating in the atomization of government. But this would probably be cyclical, with these smaller districts eventually finding value in alignment and consolidation. Think of it like college football conference realignment, except with less money.
It’s embarrassing. America likes to think of itself as a “grand experiment,” but splitting up like this would be an admission of failure. Russia would laugh at us.
My take: Embarrassment? Electing Donald Trump was the global equivalent of accidentally soiling oneself in English class. Loudly. There is nowhere to go but up.
It would probably screw up the economy. I don’t know enough about interstate trade or trade in general to understand what would happen if borders and tariffs suddenly popped up all over the place. I have the sense, though, that Conservatinople would have trouble scaring up enough tax revenue to fund garbage pickup, much less whatever replaces Medicaid. And just wait until the conversation about the disposition of our national debt.
My take: We certainly don’t want to create a humanitarian crisis in the process of sorting out our socio-cultural baggage. The saving grace, I think, however deplorable, is that economies largely exist outside of governmental borders these days. Whatever serves the oligarchs, whether on their offshore yachts or their beachfront Malibu compounds, will prevail just as it always has.
It would almost certainly screw up our national defense. The military is overwhelmingly populated (and aggressively funded) by red-staters. I fear that Progressistan’s armed forces would consist of community organizers and sullen teenage skateboarders.
My take: The predominant form of war in the 21st century is terrorism, and President Biden, at least, has cited domestic terrorism as “the most urgent terrorism threat the United States faces today.” Perhaps releasing or reducing this tension would actually improve our national security.
Then again*, giving domestic terrorists the white Christian apartheid state for which they’ve been clamoring is rather indistinct from the secessionist fever dreams of the 1850s that Lincoln righteously opposed. So there’s no easy answer here.*
Things change. A mere 30 years ago, Louisiana, Montana and West Virginia were blue states. Maybe it’s too hasty to make huge geopolitical decisions when some states are still in rehab for fossil fuel addiction.
My take: That kind of ideological mobility may not be possible anymore, partially because of The Big Sort and partially because state and local governments have engineered their districts and election laws to provide for permanent rule by one party. To quote Homer Simpson: “I guess some people never change. Or, they quickly change and then quickly change back.”
As I try to respond to these flaws, largely unconvincingly, It is almost heartening to realize that the United States is held together not by patriotism or shared ideals, but by the fact that splitting up would just be too much of a hassle. Maybe the joke is on those who would call America a “failed state” – maybe we’re too big to fail.
On The Latest Episode of the Hammersla Inquisition: Raina Patel
The talk is back: this time it’s a conversation with Raina Patel, Webster High School Class of 1995 and a real big “get” for the podcast. Raina generally avoids social media and is almost exclusively devoted to her work and family, which is, you know, how it ought to be. But she made time for me, despite the fact that our connection since high school has been tenuous.
Raina is a lot like the planet Saturn, strange and beautiful to the outside observer, mysterious under the surface, light and airy but possessing immense gravity. The formal definition of “saturnine,” owing to some truly emo medieval astronomers, is as inapt as it gets: Raina is not “cold or gloomy.” Our conversation was indeed a bright and uplifting end to the year.
With every episode I realize that I have a lot of room to improve my interviewing skills. There were a number of times here when I missed some conspicuous follow-ups to some cracking answer or another. In this case, I actually followed up with Raina on one of them, via email.
At one point in the proceedings we talk about vampires, and what would make a person “taste good” to a bloodsucking demon. I neglected to ask the obvious question: “would a person with diabetes taste sweeter to a vampire? Or does ‘blood sugar’ not really work that way?”
Raina’s answer: “I would fully expect the blood of an individual with diabetes to taste sweeter ... because the glucose attaches right to the hemoglobin … but then, would a vampire with a preference for diabetics have a sweet tooth?”
At which point, in the actual interview, I would have corrected her that the correct term is “sweet fang,” to which she would have responded, “Did you just call me ‘sweet thang?’” and hung up, offended. So maybe it’s better that I don’t know what I’m doing.
And Another Thing
In Robert Louis Stevenson’s immortal Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Jekyll writes in his final letter to G.J. Utterson:
“It was thus rather the exacting nature of my aspirations than any particular degradation in my faults, that made me what I was, and, with even a deeper trench than in the majority of men, severed in me those provinces of good and ill which divide and compound man’s dual nature.”
Each of us has a dark side, and at least one trigger that unleashes it. For Jekyll, it was a mystical serum. For me, it is fantasy football.
I mentioned in my previous newsletter – and a past podcast or two – that I had long ago given up fantasy football, although I never really explained why.
My mother once described me as a person who would rather be “right” than “happy” and fantasy sports present the perfect pastime for such people, especially those who are good at it. At the risk of tooting my own horn, I have generally been a largely successful fantasy player – baseball and football – and even I still found it to be a bizarre exercise in recreational dread.
Every week (or every day with baseball, so help me) was a cruel reminder of my powerlessness and the illusion of control. And yet it scratched a certain itch I had to analyze, theorize and find a hidden edge. So I would pour my energies into optimizing my team, only to be reminded that none of it really matters, that the outcomes within a professional athletic contest are subject to random chance and other influences beyond anyone’s command.
Fantasy sports are a hubris punishment machine, a monster who swats away your assumptions and eats your pride. To defeat the monster, one must become a monster oneself.
In my prime I was relentless, consumed with victory and infuriated by losses. I alienated friends and annoyed acquaintances. By the end, I was winning championships and spending the entirety of my winnings on flowers for my wife, as a meager apology for all the times I glanced at the scoreboard while she was talking.
I quit my longstanding fantasy football league in 2012 in a fit of pique over etiquette, of all things. For the 2013 football season I played in my friend Kevin’s huge and wildly random 16-team league and somehow finished in the money. In 2014, I devised what I believed to be the fairest possible version of fantasy football – the Justice League – but did not obtain interest sufficient to launch it. So I hung up my clipboard and called it quits. I felt fine about it.
Then, this past summer – not long at all after the publication of my previous newsletter – my friend Jason called me for advice. In an effort to schmooze with his new coworkers, he had stumbled backwards into their fantasy football league (with a relatively steep $125 buy-in), despite the fact that Jason does not actually know the difference between a tight end and an Olympic gymnast.
So we agreed that I would manage the team, with him as a silent partner. And the monster returned, with gray streaks in its fur, compensating for diminished viciousness with wisdom and guile. Again, if you’ll pardon my tooting: we finished the regular season with the league’s best record and the No. 1 playoff seed. This weekend we face off in the league championship finals, guaranteed at least $300, even as a steep underdog.
After stomping all over my weekends and reminding me why I retired in the first place, the monster serves as a useful reminder of the inherent randomness of life, our fundamental powerlessness, the value of process over results.
The irony, at least for Jason, is that the league has been pretty lame from a social standpoint: there’s no chatter, no smack talk, no gallows humor. Nobody seems to be having much fun at all, and I don’t get the impression that Jason’s coworkers have been bantering about it offline, either.
I might suggest the silver lining for Jason (besides whatever winnings end up in his pocket) is that he and I have been able to collaborate on this project. Except he’s really been collaborating with the monster this whole time. Maybe the nicest thing he could do is fire the monster in 2022 and hire someone less obnoxious, like Urban Meyer.
That’s It, That’s the List(s)
I love the Beatles. Even though they broke up six years before I was born, their music punctuates a bunch of important memories and relationships.
As a capstone to my high school musical theater career, my best friends and I performed “When I’m Sixty-Four” a capella as part of our senior year talent show, and we even won third prize, I think, which is its own story that I’ll tell here someday.
I was such a big fan of the Beatles back then that I had a “rule” that I couldn’t turn off my car in the middle of a Beatles song on the radio. And I can remember the day when my girlfriend – with full knowledge of the rule – brazenly exited the vehicle in the Seabreeze parking lot while I was still listening to “Let It Be,” and I knew in my heart of hearts that the relationship was over.
On November 19, 1995, – the first semester of my freshman year of college – the Beatles Anthology documentary series was airing on the ABC network. We didn’t have cable TV in the dorms at that point, and I had brought a pathetic little 12” RCA (with rabbit ears) to school with me. To get a signal on the thing I had to put it all the way on the top shelf of my closet, which means that I had to stand on a chair to be able to watch it. I can remember standing there listening to “Free As A Bird” at the end of the first episode when Jeremy Rothman walked into my dorm room to listen to it. I still think of that as the moment we became friends.
So Beatles lore is the kind of thing that’s right up my alley. I have now soaked up all eight hours of the Get Back documentary on Disney Plus, after taking my time doing it.
I have seen and understood criticism that the three-part series is unnecessarily loaded with quiet moments of inaction and inconsequence. But I can justify that in the same way that I justify digesting it 45 minutes at a time: I wanted to savor every moment and not let go, and I sort of assume director Peter Jackson felt the same way.
If the stars align and schedules permit, I’m hoping to drop a podcast extra in the coming weeks with some extended thoughts and dialogue on Get Back and the Beatles But until then, here are some related thoughts, in list form.
My Three Initial Takeaways:
I felt sympathy for each of the Beatles, which is really something when you consider that I’m talking about four rich white cool geniuses. By this time John Lennon and George Harrison had each clearly outgrown the band, in diverging ways: John because he was artistically exhausted and focused primarily on his relationship with Yoko Ono, George because he was at his creative peak and yet stuck in the role of glorified session guitarist. Paul McCartney was saddled with the thankless responsibility of herding these cats, not to mention writing most of the good songs. Poor Ringo just wanted to take a nap but everyone kept shouting. Get Back is a prison story.
Until now I had fully bought into the narrative that they were at each other’s throats by this time in the band’s history. I think there’s maybe still something to that, based on occasional clues in the documentary and all the post-breakup bickering (like Lennon’s “How Do You Sleep” and his spiky and infamous Playboy interview). So maybe I’m being romantic or naïve, but the film was constructed in a way that ultimately showcased their teamwork and brotherhood and everything that entails, which warmed my gullible heart.
Golly, it seemed like there was an awful lot of farting around in the studio. The time spent on free-association jamming and silly voices seemed to dwarf the time they spent on actual Beatle music. I’m willing to accept that the creative process requires a lot of “space” but I don’t know if I could work like that.
Beatles Albums, Ranked Most-Favorite to Least-Favorite (compilations and collections excluded):
2. Rubber Soul
3. Abbey Road
5. Let It Be
6. Beatles for Sale
7. Magical Mystery Tour
8. The Beatles (“The White Album”)
9. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
10. A Hard Day’s Night
11. Please Please Me
12. With the Beatles
Top 20 Favorite Beatles Songs, Ranked Most-Favorite to Least-Favorite (covers excluded):
1. Hey Jude
3. Golden Slumbers medley
4. I Will
5. You Won’t See Me
7. For No One
8. I Saw Her Standing There
9. And Your Bird Can Sing
10. I Call Your Name
12. Real Love
13. You Can’t Do That
14. I’ve Got a Feeling
15. Lady Madonna
16. While My Guitar Gently Weeps
17. I’m Down
18. Helter Skelter
19. Another Girl
20. Dear Prudence
Until Next Time
I'd like to kick it up a notch and do four to six podcasts in 2022, which means you should be hearing from me again in ... maybe three months? Wish me luck.
Sending my best,