For those of you who did not sign up for this newsletter of your own volition, I apologize for the imposition (and for the accidental sending of older emails, from before the plague). I want to use this mailing list as a way to communicate with you, my valued friends, without having to resort to Facebook, the mere mention of which makes me throw up in my mouth a little bit.
I write here only rarely and when I have something interesting to announce or promote. So I won’t be a nuisance. But if you would like to be removed, no offense taken, just let me know. It just means you won’t be privy to the occasional update or random thought originating from my shower.
It is one of my personal meditations to try and celebrate my loved ones on a regular, year-round basis rather than relying on the easy cliche of holiday and birthday cards. Alas, this is more difficult than it sounds, such that I sometimes even miss the birthdays. Even in a year like this one, when life and livelihood have been so fragile, I regret that I have not seized the opportunity to let you all know how much your friendship means to me. And no blast email or Hallmark card can make up for that. (This is, of course, one of the big reasons I established my Hammersla Inquisition podcast, for which I hope to pester each of you eventually, if I haven’t already.)
In case you all are wondering why your mailboxes are more empty this year, I can tell you that I did design a 2020 holiday card but Jessica and I agreed that the weirdness/creepiness of it would have been too distracting from the warm sentiment behind it, and not worth the investment. But you can see it here if you want to. (Bear in mind: it cannot then be unseen.)
So, for the time being, I want you all to know that I love you and think about you often. Your happiness is my happiness, and your grief is my grief, and your family is my family. Providence and science willing, we will clink our glasses and share a laugh and a hug again soon.
In the span of 11 days in 1964, the Beatles released two songs in the United States: “I Feel Fine” on November 23 and “I’m a Loser” on December 4. I always thought that was a fun juxtaposition that succinctly demonstrated the bipolar nature of not just John Lennon but the collective human condition.
In 2020 I found myself making a daily account of these two points of view.
Physically I do feel fine, as does my immediate family, which in the middle of a global health crisis is no small matter. I also still have a job, as chaotic and tenuous as that feels from minute to minute. And I am grateful that we will soon, though not soon enough, have a president that doesn’t inspire doomscrolling when I wake up in the morning.
The “Loser” list is much longer. I won’t go into the litany of personal or shared degradations. The former would surely appear self-pitying and the latter are all too familiar already. Suffice it to say that 2020 was supposed to be a pretty great year – my ten-year wedding anniversary, my mother’s 70th birthday, my 25th high school reunion, the Leavitts’ homecoming and Molly’s first year of kindergarten, to say nothing of an overdue political reckoning – and all of those milestones were rendered sterile or anticlimactic for one reason or another.
It’s hard not focusing on the things (and the people) we’ve lost, even in the shadow of the much more important things we’ve been able to salvage. It is cliche now for one to say that one can or will appreciate the little things more when this is all over. Like many cliches, this desire is rooted in sincerity. But I think it also overlooks two important notions:
There are no “little things” anymore. Everything – even the trivial, the minor, the slight, the small – is freighted with meaning and attributed to some kind of endgame. We’ve become so accustomed to Machiavellian maneuvering that public discourse is now predominantly an exercise in decoding subtext, like we’re all living in a ninth grade English class discussion of Great Expectations. One of my old co-workers had a tchotchke on his desk that read, “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff (And It’s All Small Stuff).” Well, now it’s all Big Stuff, and the stuff that used to be “Big” is now Existential, and we’re so outraged all the time that we’re running out of energy, burning carbon dioxide instead of oxygen, and suffocating.
The world has fundamentally changed, not just over the past year but over the past several years,(1) and will not go back to the way it used to be. If our environmental crisis is a product of poor stewardship of the world’s natural resources, our collective humanitarian crisis – the inability of people to relate to each other anymore, based on a mutually established set of facts – is the result of depleted social resources: trust, good faith, empathy and shame. It is both too convenient and glib to dismiss this as “politics” unless you want to assert that everything is political, and in that case what does “politics” even mean? I don’t mean for this to sound moralistic, but the fact is you can’t negotiate with terrorists.
(1) This is a whole analytical detour that probably ought to be mapped by someone with more knowledge and finesse than me, but I think there is a strong case to be made that it probably started in the mid-90s with Newt Gingrich vs. Bill Clinton, and only a quarter-century later are we seeing its end product, like the frog that doesn’t realize it’s being slowly boiled until it’s too late. Of course, someone (probably my friend Josh) will probably point out that it goes back to Nixon or Jefferson or Caesar or something. There is nothing new under the sun. *
To imagine that we’ll just snap back to the halcyon days of 2015, only with newfound appreciation for swimming pools and in-laws and business lunches or whatever, is a charming fantasy. In that respect we can be losers or we could do what the Beatles would have us do: we are going to need to practice Love, hard, not only as a compass to help us navigate a confusing and inhospitable new world, but to make the truly important things so self-evidently important that it turns the garden-variety Big Stuff into Small Stuff again.
That’s my hope and resolution for 2021.
This is a few months old now, but the latest episode of the Inquisition featured a lengthy conversation with David I. Leavitt, my friend, neighbor and former co-editor. He’s an interesting guy. Whether he’s interesting enough for a 90-minute podcast, I’ll let each person decide for themselves. The runtime could have been even longer if I hadn’t cut out a whole 30 minutes from our discussion about football, which could probably be its own podcast if I thought anyone anywhere would listen to it.
I will tell a story here that didn’t make it into our discussion, and for which I should probably have apologized specifically. My junior year, I developed romantic feelings for this girl – a mutual friend of David’s – and because I could (can?) be kind of intense, it took a lot of convincing to get her to go out with me. At one point, I was getting discouraged and sort of irrational about it.
David and I were suitemates that year. Despite college ostensibly being a place where people learn how to be adults, David had a habit of going out without his keys, meaning we would constantly have to leave the door to the suite unlocked. It was one of those funny quirks that make David so charming to people who are not directly affected by said quirks.
One night, without much explanation, David said he was going out to hang out with this girl. I tried waiting up to see what the hangout session was all about, but they were out late. Like, strangely late. I gave up at about one or two o’clock in the morning, assuming – and please remember, I was lovesick and irrational, as good an excuse as I have – the worst. In a fit of pique (and, I should say, common-sense security), I locked the suite door, turned on my voicemail and went to bed.
What I did not know is that David had spent most of the night advocating on my behalf with this girl, subtly encouraging her to give me a chance, which is something only a good friend would do. As I assumed, though, when he finally returned to the dorm, he was locked out. Somehow – this was before cell phones – he managed to wake up one of our fellow suitemates to let him in.
Whatever David said worked, and the girl and I ended up having some good times together. And then, a couple of years later, when those good times turned into very, very bad times and an ugly breakup, he was the first person to take me out for drinks (at Sequoia, I remember vividly) to listen to me bitch and moan about it. And I’ll never forget: he compared me to a company stock that wasn’t worth much at the time but was certain to appreciate in value.
All this time, he’s been the one whose friendship has been so valuable. Knowing what I know now, I probably should have locked out the girl and given David the mixtape. Sorry, Dave.
I’m just kidding, of course. David hates my mixtapes. I kind of assume everyone hates my mixtapes – or the idea of mixtapes, in general, but especially mine. It’s so self-indulgent and presumptuous, especially coming from someone with no established musical bona fides.
That said, these are the 14 tracks that got me through this year (not necessarily released this year), whether because they moved me or because they simply made me too happy to worry about things.
The Hammersla Imposition: A 2020 Playlist
Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger (Cover) / Pomplamoose
David might actually like this song, since he likes Daft Punk, clean production and female vocalists.
What Makes the World / The New Respects
Soulful harmonies, lovely message.
May I Suggest / Red Molly
I’m intrigued by the possibility that these last nine months, confined almost entirely to this house and my family, might be something I look upon fondly someday. Probably not. But maybe!
Ukulele Anthem / Amanda Palmer
Extremely weird and idiosyncratic. We are all the old woman in the front row.
The Girl I Can’t Forget / Fountains of Wayne
After Adam Schlesinger died of COVID-19 in March, I went on a Fountains of Wayne grief bender. What I always liked best about his songs were that they weren’t afraid to be fun, and this song might be the most fun of all.
Mount St. Helens Is About to Blow Up / Bill Wurtz
Apocalypses can be relaxing.
Husavik / My Marianne & Will Ferrell
The movie was mediocre and way too long but this climactic song (spoilers in the video) genuinely made me emotional.
How to Talkbox / Lorenz Rhode
I have literally had this song stuck in my head for a month.
Kyoto / Phoebe Bridgers
Normally I dislike going out and socializing. This song is about getting what you want and realizing it’s not all you thought it would be. You do the math.
You / A Great Big World
For Jessica and Molly.
Shenandoah / Saint Olaf Choir
My high school Concert Choir sang this arrangement my senior year and it always reminds me of the beautiful things friends can do together.
All Your Favorite Bands / Dawes
Eric Danton pointed informed me that the lead singer is kind of douchey, but the sentiment still resonates with me. Besides, at least this video features much cooler musicians than Dawes.
The Spiritual / Jukebox the Ghost
I have nothing interesting to say about this song, I just like it.
Hey Ya! (Cover) / Walk Off the Earth
Pure DIY joy.
My next podcast episode recording is scheduled and will feature my high school friend Christin Schaaf, who puts the “Class” in Senior Class President. Expect it within the next five to ten years.
Sending my best,