The Hammersla Exposition No. 11: A Smattering of Life and Death
Hi, everyone. As I'm sure yours are, my heart -- feeble and sclerotic though it may be -- is with the people of Ukraine, who are bearing the brunt of a humanitarian assault by a megalomaniacal lunatic. My sympathies are also with the Russian people, coming from personal experience living briefly under the regime of our own megalomaniacal lunatic. The fact that megalomaniacal lunatics keep ending up with access to nuclear missile codes seems to indicate a flaw in the human condition -- perhaps the flaw in the human condition, as distilled by Kurt Vonnegut: "everybody wants to build and nobody wants to do maintenance."
Speculating on the motivation of autocrats, my smart friend Eric theorized that Vladimir Putin is "ruthless in pursuit of self-enrichment, for which control is necessary." I countered by speculating that what dictators like Putin really want is love and approval (of countrymen, one's parents, chicks, whatever).
One of the few truly useful things I remember from my undergraduate psychology degree is Abraham Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, in which he posited that people must generally satisfy the lower-level needs before moving on to the next higher level.
If you think that Putin is motivated primarily by the desire for "self-enrichment" and material wealth, you are basically arguing that his social and emotional development is so stunted that he hasn't progressed beyond the bottom rungs of Maslow's pyramid, such that no amount of money can appease his deep-seated fear of poverty. I think this is plausible, given our understanding of Putin's modest and traumatic upbringing in Soviet Russia.
Maybe I am naïve or overly optimistic for thinking that money, especially at that scale, is practically fungible compared to those higher-level needs. Given what we know about Putin, I simply find it more plausible that he's longing for recognition as one of Russia's great leaders, as the Chosen One who will "reunify" the nation and restore its status as an imperial superpower. I think he wants, and cannot simply buy, his own statue and tomb in Red Square.*
*I recommend the recent Intelligence Matters podcast episode, in which Dr. Kenneth Dekleva, a psychiatrist, former U.S. Department of State Regional Medical Officer, and Senior Fellow at the George H.W. Bush Foundation for US-China Relations, describes how experts compile psychological profiles of world leaders, including Putin.
The Prussian general and military theorist Carl von Clausewitz famously characterized war as "a continuation of politics by other means." Hammersla's Addendum might be that war is also "a deeply expensive form of psychotherapy for people who hate doctors."
War is an expensive and horrible thing, which is an obvious thing to say except that it keeps happening, like complaining that the Oakland A's are cheapskates. The people who want to fix it are in no position to fix it, and the people who can fix it have no incentive to fix it.
It seems inevitable that the conflict in Ukraine will produce more than enough death and shame to go around, to say nothing of the obvious downstream humanitarian crises like famine and genocide. I don't need to tell you about the stories and images arising from the war zone. Most of you have seen and heard most of them. And that, in a way, is part of the problem: the Ukrainian people are being reduced to martyrs, numbers, photos, tweets, headlines, clicks, and on and on, until these men, women and children barely seem like people anymore.
One of the worst things about war is that it elevates the value of things -- concrete things like land and treasure and abstract things like borders and doctrines -- at the expense of people. War makes "things" big and makes people small, lives given over easily, cheaply, in service of a fucking flag. I put it plainly that any person or nation or principle that values territory over the people living on it ought to be thoroughly re-examined, ideally via autopsy.
But again, I keep saying things that are, like, duh. Among the more insidious casualties of war is that of novel thought.
Much farther down on that list of war casualties is blithe consumer choice. (To be fair, that particular patient has been in the culture war VA hospital for a while now. It is virtually impossible for any company, institution or public person to avoid taking a stance on this or that social issue, especially if they choose to play the influence game and invest in politics and politicians. The nuance in the "is Chik-Fil-A fascist?" debate is about as dead as the chicken.) One day we will look back fondly on the good old days when we didn't need to remember which breakfast cereal opposed a ban on assault weapons.
Unfortunately, this calculus is as essential as it is exhausting. Because once our vote doesn't matter anymore -- rest assured, there are people hard at work on that one right now -- and once shame ceases to be a deterrent -- and we'll be passing that exit real soon -- our disposable income will be just about the only thing powerful people care about. Of course, this all sets up a proxy war in which the people who HATE assault weapons boycott Crunchy-Os and the people who LOVE assault weapons buy as many Crunchy-Os as possible, and ultimately some enterprising agribusiness that just wanted to create a nutritious way to start your day gets stuck between cable news commentators when all they were trying to do is grease their local congressman for a modest tax deduction.
That's why Jeffrey Sonnenfeld and his research team at the Yale Chief Executive Leadership Institute have come up with his list of major companies doing business in Russia. The Hammersla Household has tried to do its part, as small a gesture as it is, to avoid the companies and products on that list. We'll be okay without Dunkin Donuts and Wheat Thins. But the one that will really hurt is going without Quilted Northern toilet paper. (As a division of a subsidiary of a subsidiary of Koch Industries, it was admittedly pretty odious to begin with.) At the risk of breaching the firewall here, Quilted Northern has been a trusted partner of mine for years longer than my wife has. Finding someone new is not going to be easy, but it is very literally the least I can do as someone who wants to give a shit. Especially if I am able to find toilet tissue featuring a print of Putin's face.
For those of us not on the front lines, these are our battlefields. And while admittedly the stakes here are much lower and less heartbreaking than they are 5,000 miles away, this bombardment speaks to the constant feeling of anxiety and existential dread we all share, living in a world where every choice feels like life and death. War is hell.
Another thing Kurt Vonnegut once said is, "People say there are no atheists in foxholes. A lot of people think this is a good argument against atheism. Personally, I think it’s a much better argument against foxholes."
The Big Idea
Shortly after we moved into our idyllic suburban home about eight years ago, our gruff (now ex-)neighbor Gary casually remarked that one of the prior owners had been found dead in what is now our kitchen.
This revelation was at first disturbing, then just sort of disquieting. And now it's just another goddamn thing that's wrong with the house.
But there's no real reason it should bother us. Folks have to die somewhere. It's not like the house still smells like a dead person. (More like Elmer's glue and goldfish crackers.) There was no lasting impact at all, unless you are one of the 46% of American adults who believe in ghosts. And even if ghosts do exist, we don't know what the rules are. Are you trapped where you died? Are hospitals and battlefields just chock-full of lost souls? Or do you get to leave and haunt your loved ones? Can you travel to see your relatives? Are you allowed to get on planes? Do they have to be direct flights? It seems complicated.
I used to believe in ghosts but I think that was mostly just an extension of my keen awareness of "ghosts" in a figurative sense -- like, "I can't eat at that restaurant, my ex-girlfriend and I used to eat there all the time. Too many ghosts."
This poetic overlap between the literal and the metaphorical extends to my belief system regarding life after death, generally. Since I was not raised with formal religion, I'm not bound to any traditional concept of Heaven or Hell or Valhalla or reincarnation or whatever. I think of myself as pretty clear-eyed when it comes to these kinds of things, and fairy tales bring me little comfort. But I still have a spiritual and sentimental side.
So this is what I believe:
When a human person dies, their mortal shell begins to decompose and their elements return to the universe. Strictly according to physics, they are gone for good.
As the law of conservation states, matter can be neither created nor destroyed. So if you want to believe that your very own magnesium, phosphorous, etc. are "reincarnated" into the nectar of a flower that is personally fertilized by your dead body, and that nectar, consumed by a butterfly, leads to a butterfly egg, from which hatches a caterpillar, which is eaten by a badger, and so on and so forth, and you think of that as "reincarnation," that's cool. But I read that unromantically, as just a natural, scientific process.
All of this, I think, is pretty obvious and widely agreed upon.
It's "The Soul" we're really thinking and talking about when we think and talk about life after death, and which underpins a lot of religious orthodoxy. As The Soul cannot be observed as matter or energy, it is therefore not bound by physical law and, therefore, can be destroyed. Some rational thinkers might believe that The Soul is a myth. But I believe that The Soul exists in the same way that I believe "Love" exists, even if it cannot truly be measured or conserved.
(The Beatles sang that "in the end/the love you take/is equal to the love/you make," but I have yet to see anyone prove that mathematically. I like to imagine it's what everyone was arguing about in Good Will Hunting.)
Since The Soul is not matter, it cannot disintegrate or evaporate. It is here that the pious might suggest that it floats to Heaven, or sinks to Hell, depending on whether they checked the right boxes on the right form. I can certainly appreciate the seductive nature of this idea, especially in times of grief. It is a cheap, easy comfort to think or say, "I'll see you again someday." But, like I said, the idea of an extradimensional paradise is just a bridge too far for me, even setting aside the myriad practical questions that go along with an infinite, eternal space populated by nothing but nice people and their parents.
So that's the real question, in two parts. Does the soul survive the death of our bodies? And if so, where does it go?
Let's consider what The Soul is. Merriam-Webster's dictionary offers eight different definitions -- many of them invoking the "spirit" and/or one's "essence," but I choose to boil all of that down into a single broad, inclusive definition: the collection of morals, emotions, judgments, desires and instincts that makes a person who they are. You might even say that it is the part of a person that is most alive.
An even simpler, more idiosyncratic definition might be: The Soul is the thing that loves and is loved. In fact, let us grant that The Soul and Love are the same thing.
Let us further consider where and how we hold on to Love. It is not the heart, as poetic as that would be -- the heart has a hard enough job, pumping blood everywhere, every second, without having to give a fig about Valentine's Day -- but rather the mind. And where in the mind is it kept? Maybe that's a debate for a neuroscientist, but in my view the answer is kind of obvious: it is kept in our long-term memory.
Our emotional memories are stored and retrieved by the hippocampus, the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala. Perhaps not coincidentally, the amygdala also controls your autonomic nervous system (responsible for the pitter-patter of your heart) and the secretion of pleasure hormones like dopamine (informally known as "the happy hormone").
To the extent that this long-term memory is both a permanent record of our pleasures and pains and a trigger thereof, we might also call it the seat of Love. (No, not this.)
Speaking of the brain, there is an aphorism that has nested in mine and crystallized my perspective on this topic. I've seen versions of it attributed to the Jews, the Chinese, the Jedi Council -- basically any community known for sage wisdom -- and goes something like, "We all die twice. First when the breath leaves our body, and then again when our name is spoken for the last time."
I like that idea. It makes a lot more sense to me than the notion of "pearly gates." What if:
When a person's body expires, their soul literally lives on the memory of those who love them. The Soul disperses, takes root in various brains, and does everything a soul does: it guides that person's behavior through moral and emotional influence. Only it does so in partnership with the living person's own soul, and all the other souls inhabiting there. That brain, for all intents and purposes, is "Heaven." And The Soul lives on that way until the last person who remembers them dies.
My friend David Leavitt recently wrote a thoughtful obituary for one of his early mentors and ended it with the phrase "may his memory be a blessing." I'm hearing that phrase more often lately, maybe only because as I get older I know more and more people who are dying. I find the idea of giving someone immortality through memory to be the ultimate blessing.
But the most appealing aspect of this theory, if correct, is the corollary that, if you are kind and loveable enough, you'll live forever.
*I acknowledge the glaring flaw here, which is that there are a lot of people we remember despite or because of the fact that they were truly horrible people. I haven't worked out the kinks there. As far as people like despots and serial killers go, I think this can be explained away by arguing that history -- widely shared and objective -- is different than memory -- personal and particular. As for the other monsters we carry with us ... I'm not sure. It could be that we have separate memory just for love. It could be that life just isn't fair and maybe villains live forever. But I'm more intrigued by the idea that the memory of those monsters help us remember to love ourselves.
Anyway, I'm going to stick with this until someone proves me wrong. I eagerly grant that my feeble Earthling mind can only conceive so much, and there may well be an post-death existential state that defies spacetime and human understanding. Maybe we all become leptons in an ultraviolet quadrangle or something. But pondering an inconceivable existence is a waste of time. And a holy trinity of The Soul, Love and Memory makes for pretty good foma in the meantime.
And Another Thing ...
I've been thinking about college sports lately. Part of the reason, perhaps obvious to most of you, is the ongoing men's and women's NCAA basketball tournaments.
I have practically nothing invested personally in "March Madness" but I'm always kind of interested in it as a social exercise. I subscribe to the theory, recently espoused by Joel Anderson on a recent episode of Hang Up and Listen, that a single-elimination tournament with a field of 64 (or 68, depending on how you look at it) teams makes for great entertainment but a very poor method for determining a champion. That is fine, I guess. Everyone seems pretty well bought into it, from the coaches to the players to the fans. But I'm one of those guys who doesn't want to expand the College Football Playoff (and, frankly, was pretty satisfied with the BCS). But eventually it'll happen, because there's too much money to be minted.
So, we accept that college basketball (and college sports) is primarily Entertainment. More to the point, since the tournament is the annual cash cow for the NCAA itself because it is so entertaining, we could say that college basketball is primarily Commerce.
Until this past year, all of that commerce inured to the benefit of the NCAA, the conferences, the schools and a few dozen very highly paid coaches. That is, pretty much everyone but the players. Then, suddenly, a seismic shift in the form of two new rules: (1) undergraduate players are allowed one transfer during their collegiate career without having to sit out a year, and (2) pretty much* all players are allowed to capitalize on their "name, image and likeness" (NIL) without being disqualified.
* Student-athletes on foreign visas are ineligible for NIL money, I believe. Probably for tax reasons.
These new rules have brought the tension between player and system into greater balance, but not without repercussion. The other thing I've been thinking about is this story from The Athletic, wherein an unnamed top football recruit has reportedly negotiated an $8 million deal to play for an unnamed college team, with the contract negotiated via a third-party collective (read: wealthy boosters). Set aside the fact that, hey, good for him, get your money. But -- and I think this is the reaction of the public majority -- this cannot be good for the sport.
There is only a short list of teams with the wherewithal to spend that kind of money on players, and the list gets even shorter when you consider the requisite onions to get into the high-stakes NIL business. Everyone else is on the outside looking in.
We've established that college sports are first and foremost Commerce. I don't begrudge the players becoming partners in that commerce. But to make money with commerce you have to sell something. With college sports -- with ALL sports -- what you're selling is hope. The game itself is strong -- for now. The NCAA can go on selling pageantry, competition, athleticism and feats of strength, but eventually people want championships. And if only a half-dozen college teams walking on to the field can realistically hope for a championship, the rest of us fans might as well start watching the stock market instead, where the field is more level.
On The Latest Episode of the Hammersla Inquisition: Sarah Kate Benton Kent
The very first guest on the Hammersla Inquisition was my old high school buddy, Graham Kent. I selected Graham for the launch specifically because he crossed the barrier between my high school friends and my college friends, because he married one of my college friends. That episode garnered 47 downloads, still the second-most of any episode. The last two episodes have garnered ... [triple-checking -- really?] 15 and 13 downloads, respectively. It's a very good thing that I'm mostly doing this for my own gratification as opposed to, say, ad revenue.
But in an effort to goose those totals a little bit, I've now interviewed another crossover star: Sarah Kate Benton Kent, Graham's blessed and aforementioned wife. This one was a long time coming, for one reason or another taking more than six months to book.
Anyway, it was a lovely conversation. We covered a wide variety of topics: feminism, prepositions, parenting, aliens, vegetarianism ... In retrospect I wish I had pressed her a little harder on her adamant denial that she would eat Ted Cruz.* He barely qualifies as a living thing and, being from Texas, I have to imagine he's pretty well-marbled.
*I know this is pretty far afield but I couldn't help thinking about Cruz when the Oscars Slap happened last night. How would the world be different if, when Trump called his wife ugly, Cruz had walked over and slapped the spray tan off of his face? Obviously the junior senator from Texas has only enough courage to harass minorities from the safety of a raised dais, or else he wouldn't be Ted Cruz. But oh, what a magnificent sight that would have been.
Anyway, during the Questions from the Listening Audience segment, Sarah and I took a question from "Xavier," who has trouble connecting with women despite the fact that he is totally yoked. Sarah, demonstrating the her sweetly enduring belief in the immense potential that resides in all of us, suggested that he "try to be more funny." I didn't interrogate this in the moment, either, but: is that even possible? Maybe what Sarah meant is that he should "take himself/dating/life less seriously," which I think is advice we can all use. But I would really caution folks about taking Sarah's advice literally if they don't have any experience being funny, or third-party affirmation that they are funny. I've written about what happens about people who are not funny try to be funny, and it usually ends up with people getting slapped.*
*I wrote this line about being slapped several days before the Oscar broadcast, I swear.
Thankfully I did not get slapped at any point during this interview, although that might change once Graham hears it.
That’s It, That’s the List(s)
Attentive listeners to the latest podcast episode will notice a usual piece missing. This episode does not include a "Turn the Tables" segment, where I get to answer a question. Maybe this is for the best, as this tends to be the most long-winded part of a typical episode.
Pulling back the production curtain for a moment, I often ask folks to let me know what their question is in advance if it's going to be a serious, non-trivial question, just as I preview the "But Seriously" question I intend to ask. Most people so far have preferred to ask a serious philosophical question, which is fine. I think this is probably because my guests tend to be intellectually curious people, and also because -- since these are not necessarily people with whom I shoot the breeze on a regular basis -- they want to spend our time together really excavating my brain.
But I do let people know that silly questions are fine, and worthy of putting me on the spot. And when I do, the example I always go with is, "You could always ask me, for instance, 'what's my favorite Tom Hanks movie?'"
Nobody has ever asked me what my favorite Tom Hanks movie is. And since I've mentioned it a few times, I've inadvertently given it some thought. This is my list.
(Note: this is different from a list of "Best Tom Hanks Movies," or even "Best Tom Hanks Performances." A fine distinction, but a distinction nonetheless.)
1. The Money Pit
Disguised as broad comedy:
Laugh because it hurts
2. Joe vs. The Volcano
A bunch of sketches
More than a real narrative
But when it works – wow.
3. Road to Perdition
Is the stoic backbone of
This lean, lovely noir.
4. The Ladykillers
Coens’ worst? Maybe.
But Hanks’ raw commitment
5. Charlie Wilson's War
Yeah, this one belongs
To Sorkin and Phil Hoffman –
But Hanks hangs with ’em.
The blockbuster that
Made Tom Hanks a superstar –
7. Sleepless in Seattle
A clever script and
Chemistry with Meg Ryan
Redeem this schmaltz-fest
One recurring thought as I consider all this is that Hanks was one of the first big comedy stars who suddenly decided that he wanted to be a Serious Dramatic Actor and just stopped making comedies. It's frustrating because he was SO GOOD at those comedies, and now so many actors have followed that path -- Michael Keaton, Jim Carrey, Bill Murray (mostly), Will Smith, Steve Carell -- that studios don't even make those kinds of comedies anymore. And it's especially galling because I think most people will agree that comedy is harder to execute successfully than straight drama, but nobody gives out Oscars for comedies.*
* The last pure comedy to win Best Picture -- and the only one in the last 60 years -- was Annie Hall in 1978. If you want to look at the Best Actor Oscar, you can sort of crane your neck and think of Roberto Begnini in 1999's Life is Beautiful and Jack Nicholson in 1998's As Good As It Gets as comedies, but I feel Iike I'm meeting them more than halfway there. Other than those, you're talking about Richard Dreyfuss in 1978's The Goodbye Girl and a bunch of musical comedies, which I don't want to count. I can't be dissuaded that Murray and Groundhog Day should have won in 1993, for example.
Anyway, Tom Hanks is a national treasure. Long live Hanks.
Until Next Time
"Ukraine is game to you? How about I take your little board and SMASH!"
Sending my best,