The summer is over, and I have no problem with that.
Sure, summer was great back in the day when it meant no homework, no early mornings, movie matinees and daytime baseball. But all that pretty much evaporated once I graduated from college and July 14 was pretty much the same as October 26 or Feburary 7, except more humid.
My wife is a special person and I love her deeply. But she, like many others, has a fascination with summer and the beach that I cannot understand. To her it is a manifestation of freedom and nature and vitality, where life is a Pepsi commercial. To me it represents sunburns, and body shame, and billions of grains of sand in intimate crevasses, where I am taunted by the easy availability of fried and fatty foods but emotionally blocked from eating them in front of Fabio the next umbrella over.
I feel a little bit guilty that our pandemic-related agoraphobia has prevented us from taking a semi-tropical vacation, or even a modest beach outing. Jessica so desperately wants it and deserves it. But I have to admit: I’m also relieved.
Now that my daughter is back in school I don’t really have to worry about it again for a while, probably until holiday vacation season – or, depending on how fast global warming really is accelerating, at least until next week.
Plenty of ink has already been spilled in service of piling on the idiots behind the scenes of the Jeopardy! game show, so I wade into the topic gingerly. I can’t pretend to be affected or even really all that interested in who the new permanent host will be. It’s hard enough reminding myself that sports teams aren’t civic institutions but capitalist enterprises. I won’t fall into the same trap with respect to a television show that I haven’t watched regularly since I was 12.
As a pretty distant observer and a reader of the really great Ringer piece that ultimately brought about the great reckoning, I will say that Mike Richards’ resignation was as viscerally satisfying as his initial appointment was disappointingly anti-climactic. But two things really stand out to me.
First, in every single story I’ve read, not one source on or off the record has a nice thing to say about this guy. There isn’t a single, “oh, that’s just him goofing around,” or “that doesn’t paint the full picture” or even “yes, but he’s a good boss.” The best anyone can say about him is that his shows have gotten good ratings. But, you know, so did Harvey Weinstein’s. You can’t lead people if you don’t have their respect – at least begrudging respect. Which means his eventual sacking as the executive producer is merely a dessert that hasn’t come to the table yet.
Second, this is yet another object lesson that people should avoid trying to be funny. Richards’ problems didn’t begin and end with his ill-considered podcast, but he just might have been able to skate by if not for the hours and hours of “comedy” that he excreted into the world. (Given that he conceived of this show at college, it is also in a way an indictment of modern American higher education, which allows these upper-middle-class dweebs to foist their aggressively mediocre creative endeavors upon a bored populace and thereby achieve a parochial kind of celebrity. Think of it as the a cappella effect.)
Anyway, like many people do, he mistook being provocative/loud/obnoxious/clever (being generous) for being funny. Being funny is either an innate talent or really hard work, or very probably both, and if you don’t truly know how funny you are by the time you’re 40 you need to find someone you trust who will tell you.
I find myself riding this razor’s edge not only with this piddly little newsletter (which goes out specifically to a beloved 22 subscribers) but with the Hammersla Inquisition podcast, of which I would be disingenuous to suggest that it does not contain attempts at humor. I can justify this by telling myself that the podcast is intentionally, perhaps defiantly, esoteric, and that the people who get me will get it, and even if they don’t, they’ll forgive me. But “funny” is always a gamble. Even the greats bomb sometimes.
Not too long ago I confided in my friend Jeremy about a bit I was considering for an upcoming podcast. I suggested a commercial parody in which, instead of one of those basic meal kit subscriptions, a service sent you (essentially) an indentured servant along with the ingredients to cook the meal for you. I shouldn’t need an outside voice to gently discourage me from jokes about slavery. But there I was. And it’s scary, because when you’re trying to be creative and pushing buttons or boundaries, you have to mute your censor once in a while. That’s how people get in trouble, on podcasts or Twitter or anywhere. And it only takes one big mistake.
My sainted A.P. English teacher used to say, “never start off a speech with a joke. Because most jokes fail, and if you fail at the start of a speech, you’ll never get the audience back.” I have taken this even farther, professionally, encouraging my boss in his public appearances to eschew his puns and bon mots entirely, lest it undercut the substance of his speech.
This isn’t a cool thing for me to admit, but I will: I really want to make you laugh. I’d like to do that by making you think, but I’m not above making fart noises. I’ve come to the conclusion, though – a conclusion I think Mike Richards missed, and all but the very best must abide – that I can’t be funny first. First, I have to be kind. I think if you can be kind while trying to be funny, at least you get hugs when you flop, instead of death threats. And only then can you appreciate what A. Whitney Brown called “the saving grace of humor: if you fail, at least no one is laughing at you.”
Speaking of the podcast: I had intended to send out this newsletter with a link to my latest episode. But the recording session had to be postponed and I don’t know now when it will happen. Hopefully soon!
For anyone who still needs a Hammersla-related podcast fix, I can at least offer you something bland and informative: in my professional capacity as a mid-level policy wonk, I recently appeared as a guest on the podcast Risky Benefits, promoting this project my organization just completed.
Fair warning, it’s not exactly spine-tingling stuff. Do not listen to it while operating heavy machinery.
[available wherever fine podcasts are found]
There was a bit of Online Discourse this past week with respect to the inherent value of Indian food, prompted by a Gene Weingarten column in which he attempted to be – yes, you guessed it – funny by disparaging an entire subcontinent. He rightly got his comeuppance and apologized, so I’m not going to pile on any further, even though I’m a big fan of Indian food (and my biggest regret about dating an Indian-American woman in my 20s – aside from believing her when she said she loved me – is that I never asked her to cook for me). No, I just want to dump on Gene Weingarten generally.
I used to like Weingarten’s writing quite a bit, but I will never forgive him for his mismanagement of the 2012 Washington Post humor contest, in which a steaming turd of a story was chosen over my entry. Even after all these years of perspective and wisdom, I remain outraged.
One of the big political policy issues of the moment is the matter of voting rights legislation. The U.S. House of Representatives passed the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act (H.R. 4) on August 24, sending it on to the U.S. Senate. Expect to hear even more in the coming days and weeks about the vaunted filibuster and why it is stupid/essential.
This past spring, I signed a nondisclosure agreement that prevents me from discussing the events of an event I attended. But let us imagine that there was a focus group of highly engaged Democratic voters on the subject of the filibuster, especially (but not exclusively) in the context of voting rights legislation. In this imaginary scenario you might reasonably assume that the majority of the focus group participants supported nuking the filibuster so the Dems in the Senate can get shit done. But you might also figure that there was one guy – one handsome, articulate guy – who kept pumping the brakes on that idea based on the premise that the Senate is naturally tilted toward the GOP, and if (when) they regain control of the chamber, Democrats are going to need that filibuster to prevent Republicans from arming every fetus with a bible and an AR-15 and raising the voting age to 50.
There’s a certain amount of game theory going on here, obviously. If the Democrats can get rid of the filibuster, so can Republicans, and so maybe the Democrats should just pass stuff while they can, even if Republicans can just turn around and repeal it in two years. Then again, if the margins remain thin and you get a few Republicans who balk at the idea just like some Democrats are doing now, you might be grateful that it still exists.
Philosophically I’m not wild about supermajority rule but I’m even more concerned about minority rule, which is inadvertently built into the Senate and is already well established in the U.S. Supreme Court. The filibuster is the only tool California and New York have in their toolchest to hold back the Dakotas and Carolinas. I fear the Senate is a busted escalator and the filibuster is the only thing allowing us to use it as stairs rather than a slide of death.
That said, I feel very strongly in favor of efforts to make voting easier. I think anyone who doesn’t has pretty much conceded that their ideas have no merit and instead wants to make participation in democracy an exclusive club for them and their friends.
Maybe there is a compelling argument to be made that voting rights legislation is the one thing worth abolishing the filibuster for, on the assumption that, with their rights assured, American voters will vote the right people into office in 2022, etc., eliminating the need for a minority-party emergency brake. But I don’t hear anyone making that argument explicit.
I don’t offer much in this space in the way of personal updates (that stuff is generally reserved for the much more exclusive Lunch with Hammersla and the Hammersla Obligatory Phone Call to His Parents) but, at the risk of committing a HIPAA violation, I am now recovering from a medical issue commonly known as “frozen shoulder” (adhesive capulitis). Basically, my left shoulder range of motion was severely compromised, to the point where I couldn’t scratch my lower back or wash my right armpit.
Just a few years ago, the only cure would have been months and months of at-home stretching exercises coupled with prayer. Fortunately for me, there is a brand-new treatment protocol for frozen shoulder called “hydrodistention,” which an ultrasound-guided outpatient procedure in which an orthopedist floods the shoulder capsule with what seemed like a gallon of saline/steroid solution, thereby creating space around the ball joint. Initially, it felt like my arm was going to fly off, like Voltron. but once that subsided, I was ready for my first of ten hours of physical therapy, where the good folks at Orthovirginia manipulated my shoulder and instructed me on a series of tedious exercises.
I have come to the age where there are little annoying things that happen with my body and I just have to decide – or resign myself to the fact – that it’s just going to be something I deal with until I die. Like, the left side of my jaw crackles when I yawn. My lower back hurts when I first wake up. This weird bump on my arm has graduated from a concern to a distinguishing feature. I’m hoping that any residual shoulder stiffness is merely temporary, rather than another item on that list.
I have my last such physical therapy appointment on September 1, at which point I hope they will give me some magical tips or tricks or touches or something and return me to 100%. Or more likely the barely-passing grade I had before this all started.
If it’s autumn – and I can tell it is by the number of crickets sneaking into my house looking for food – then it means football is coming fast. So fast, in fact, the Big Ten had its first game of the year this past Saturday and it took me totally by surprise.
Pop-culture yogi Chuck Klosterman said once that when a person grows up and becomes an adult, with adult responsibilities, that they have to choose whether they’re going to be an NFL guy or a college football guy.
For most of my life I was an NFL guy. As a kid, my favorite team was the (then-Los Angeles) Raiders – owing mostly to Bo Jackson. Eventually I soured on that team – routinely the dumbest in the league – and stumbled upon Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts, who played a fun and brainy kind of football. Eventually Manning went to Denver and my only favorite team was my own fantasy football team. Then I gave up fantasy football and just started cheering against the teams I hated: New England, Washington, Dallas, Pittsburgh.
Over the last decade, as my NFL fandom slowed – though I still watch lots of games – I adopted my wife’s alma mater (the University of Michigan) as my college football team (frankly, right around the time they started being terrible). They embark on their new season this coming Saturday and I’m dreading it just as much as I look forward to it.
I don’t know if Klosterman is right, maybe I’m kidding myself. Maybe I can’t watch college AND NFL football without being a deadbeat husband and father. But in any case I strongly suspect I’m going to need a new favorite NFL team to distract me as soon as Michigan loses by 30 to the Badgers.
I have therefore set about to pick out a new favorite team. Once again I have sought to employ quantitative analysis and spreadsheet wizardry to evaluate all the candidates on a weighted nine-point scale, in which all teams are scored 0-10 on the following criteria:
Front office (Ownership/management/coach) [2x]: Ultimately, these are the people in whose wisdom you are entrusting your loyalty - and the ones who benefit most from success.
City/State [3x]: Proximity is nice, but this is more about the fundamental qualities of the people and place represented by the team (including their electoral wisdom).
Uniforms [2x]: Not that I would ever actually buy an NFL jersey, but if you’re going to watch a team regularly, you want them to be nice to look at.
Best/most interesting player(s) [1x]: You want your team to have an icon who represents the franchise well and is easy to root for.
Past performance [1x]: It’s not exactly cool as a new “bandwagon” fan to take any kind of pride in past victories, but I think it’s okay to assess a team’s reputation. Bonus points are available for lovable losers.
Current quality [2x]: Since who knows how long this fandom will last, I want the team to do well in the short term.
Potential future quality [3x]: If everything goes well, maybe this becomes a lasting relationship.
Past affinity [4x]: A team gets some valuable bonus points based on how much I’ve rooted for them before.
Public poll [2x]: You get to help me choose. I’ve created a poll with the teams from the top half of the spreadsheet. The team(s) with the most votes get 10 points. Second-most votes gets nine points, etc. Please go ahead and take the poll here.
P.S. Back in the day I used to offer my “predictions and predilections” for each team before the season began. This whole project is designed to determine my 2021 predilections, but if you sort the spreadsheet by “Current Quality,” you’ll see my current-year predictions as well.
I very much hope to have the next podcast episode done and up within weeks, so please stay tuned. Until then …
Sending my best,
Jason Go Blue!