Notes on a Brief and Failed Dare, and Reasons for Hope

a postcard to Barbara Lee

My failed dare started when I triangulated these three things:

So many of us run from intimacy by using hobbies, a job, or events that, on the larger scale, you know deep in your heart aren’t nearly as important. Instead, try a new habit that links you. Write a thank-you note every night to someone—a teacher, a coworker, a doctor, a friend, or your spouse.

Mehmet Oz, Prevention magazine, October 2012

As spectators we are disdainful, sneering; as partisans we are responsible, sensitive to what the moment demands, and convinced that the sense of meaning grows not by spectacular acts but by quiet deeds, day to day.

Abraham Joshua Heschel, “Existence and Celebration”; from Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity: Essays

Use the mail. Use the mail. Use the mail. Use the mail.

Many of you are doing simple actions of resistance and protest. Allow me to suggest another. May I suggest you begin to use the Postal Service. First let me remind you that you do. A letter carrier has you on a route 6 days a week. But we all have cut back on contributing on the front end of the act. […] Send postcards, letters, there is even a rate for media mail. It is a quick action. One you can do between calling your rep, signing a petition on line etc. Heck, send me a postcard. I will respond.

Michael Martone

I triangulated these things on the dark days right around the Electoral College vote. And I had the idea: on top of phone calls and petitions and marches and letters and postcards, could I also send a thank-you note every single day? Specifically, could I, from 20 December 2016, the Electoral College vote, through 20 January 2021, the inauguration of the next President, write at least one note of kindness and gratitude per day?

I tweeted:

A dare: From 12/20/2016-1/20/2021, mail ≥1 public &/or private notecard or postcard/day. 1,492 days. Hope, thanks, pluralism, civics, love.

I made it eighteen days.

Why did I fail at this? In part, to be honest, because it’s hard to track down everyone’s addresses. In part because I was trying to carefully document the whole thing (too carefully and thoroughly, really): transcribing the text, photographing the postcards, then writing a tweet about the postcard I’d just written. It was too much to do every single day, without fail, for 1,492 days.

I’m good at the without-fail part.

But maybe I have limits.

And then, speaking of fire, there is burnout, the genuine exhaustion of those who tried—though sometimes they tried in ways guaranteed to lead to frustration or defeat (and then, sometimes, they burned out from being surrounded by all these other versions of left despair, to say nothing of infighting).

Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities (p. 21)

Maybe we all have limits individually.

But together, we are unstoppable.

From the Indivisible Guide: “Figure out how to divide roles and responsibilities among your group.”

From my friend KC: “Remember: you are meant to feel overwhelmed, dismayed, despairing. […] We are standing together but we are dividing up the work.”

I am resisting. I’m in the crowd. I’m calling, I’m signing, I’m using the mail.

I think I’m old enough to know myself well enough to know that I’m probably never going to be leading the march. But I’m solidly in it.

I’m bringing what I’ve got to the fight.

The Truth About the Electoral College

1) “The Truth About the Electoral College” (below) is an animation written by me, produced by Chris Bonner, and drawn and animated by Sarah Berland (née Bereczki). It’s a satire of the Schoolhouse Rock style, with a lot more swear words. We made it in the first half of 2000.

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Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

It’s a cranky, badly compressed animation that, amazingly, still works—although the pause button is broken, so it just hurtles ahead whether you like it or not. (Kind of like our worse-than-winner-take-all system of electing the president!)

2) This originally ran as part of an online series of funny/informative content thingies called “The Truth About”; the series was published on a website that ceased to exist not long after this first ran. I re-posted it here on my website right after the 2000 presidential election, but before the disastrous Bush v. Gore Supreme Court decision. As of September 2016, I’m going to leave that post with its original pub date as-is, but I’m going to add this updated post with some additional details as well.

Namely, I’m adding the Creative Commons license, in case someone out there wants to take on the challenge of redoing/remaking this into something less technologically cranky and more fresh and exciting! As of 2016, the fate of the whole world rests in the hands of the American electorate. I’m hoping a better understanding of the Electoral College will encourage everyone to vote—and encourage everyone not to throw away their vote in a worse-than-useless protest.

3) As I’m hoping everyone reading this already knows, Al Gore won the presidential election with a margin of something like half a million votes. But he lost because of some combination of protest votes for Ralph Nader, a few hundred votes in Florida, right-wing Astroturf activists on the ground, a 5-4 decision in Bush v. Gore (that basically said that the legitimacy of a Bush presidency would be compromised by a total and indisputable Gore victory), and—more than anything, really—the structural awfulness that is the Electoral College.

(Yes, I know: Gore lost Tennessee. To which I say: Half! A! Million! Votes!)

If you want to know more, read The Electoral College Primer 2000. It hasn’t been updated in sixteen years (and, obviously, neither has the Electoral College), but it’s maddeningly and terrifyingly prescient. I haven’t found a better introduction to the subject. Let me know if you have.

4) For anyone interested in taking advantage of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license in the next six weeks, here’s “The Truth About the Electoral College” script. I’ve tried to update what we originally wrote to be a closer approximation of what we ended up recording. Apologies for any errors here; I’ll probably keep refining this after posting:

Kid: Extree, extree! Senator Brayin Jackass elected president! Senator Jackass is the new president of the United States!
Dr. E.: Well, he won the popular vote, but he hasn’t been elected president yet. When your mommy voted yesterday, she didn’t vote for president! Her vote goes to a group of people called the Electoral College. And they’re the ones that will decide who becomes president.
Kid: But—I thought America was a representative democracy, where the people elect the president.
Dr. E.: Jesus Christ, kid, are you high on crack?! Our Founding Fathers took great pains to make sure that the people would never elect the president directly!

(sung) Many many many many years ago
It was seventeen eighty-seven or so—
If my drug-hazed high school memories serve me right

The summer in Philly was hot and sticky
Our Founding Fathers were crabby and picky
And yet they hadn’t even begun to fight!

They almost had the Constitution done,
‘cept how to pick their number one,
The top-dog-cheese, the boss-mac-daddy-prince

And whaddaya know? Hey, look! A big surprise,
They settled on a crippling compromise,
And we’ve barely dodged the fallout ever since!

(spoken) You see, the first major fuckup was in article II of the Constitution. Article II goes like this: Each state shall appoint a certain number of people called “electors.” And then when people vote, their votes don’t go to the presidential candidates. The votes go to the electors. And all of the electors, called the Electoral College, vote for president.

Kid: Who are these electors, anyway?

Dr. E.: (sung) The electors were supposed to be good and wise
Like your favorite uncle in disguise
But then the whole thing went from bad to worse

Americans are supposed to vote for themselves
Not for a college of electoral elves
And that’s when they should have sent it off in a hearse!

But instead of putting it in the ground
They just fiddled and tweaked it all around
And it looms over the country like a ticking, time-bomb curse

(spoken) They wrote and ratified a whole bunch of amendments to the Constitution, which go something like this: The Electoral College elects the president, but only if the leading candidate has a majority. If there’s not a majority, the Electoral College goes home, and the House of Representatives elects the president.

Kid: A deadlock gets thrown into the House of Representatives?
Dr. E.: That’s right! It’s only happened twice, but sometimes people have tried to force it to happen, like Strom Thurmond in ’48, or George Wallace in ’68.
Kid: Why would they do that?
Dr. E.: Because they hated black people! And when the American public didn’t agree with them, they were hoping that maybe their buddies in Congress would.
Kid: Oh, I get it.
Dr. E.: But check this out! It gets worse!

(sung) If the house of reps can’t make up its mind
We’d all wake up the next morning to find
The speaker of the house becomes our president.

Kid: Goddamn it! Can I say fuck again?
Dr. E.: Sure, kid. I think you’d be justified.
Kid: Fuck! Fucky fuck fuck fuck! Fuckity fuck fuck fuck!
Dr. E.: Okay, potty-mouth, I’m gonna finish my song now.

(sung) So in 1996, in the final week,
If Ross Perot hadn’t been such a freak,
We could have had President Gingrich standing tall!

And if that ever happens, we’re out of luck—
It just goes to show how deeply fucked
Things can be in a country where the Founding Fathers didn’t trust the American people at all.

5) Part of the original script that didn’t quite make it into the final:

Jefferson thought it was good as dead
“A blight on the Constitution,” he said,
“And one which some unlucky chance will someday hit.”

But instead of putting it in the ground,
They just fiddled and tweaked it all around,
So there’s a chance the fan might someday meet the shit.

6) Something that seems like it might possibly be a story for journalists: the co-author of The Electoral College Primer 2000, Lawrence Longley—”best known for his expertise and authoritative knowledge of the Electoral College, which he believed was a fatally flawed institution that should be abolished”—died in March 2002. Which means he lived long enough to see the Bush v. Gore decision, the 9/11 attacks, the invasion of Afghanistan, and the long march to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. How did he feel about all these things? Did he want his book to live on, maybe finally causing enough sustained outrage to accomplish its ultimate goal of the direct election of the president, or something closer to it than we have now?

7) Vote, everyone! Vote! Civilization and life on earth depend on it.

Closer to Hired: Lyrics & Links

1) First, a link to the YouTube video we made today for “Closer to Hired.” (Since I have a link at the end of the video that goes back here, it seems silly to build an embed.)

Closer to Fine YouTube screen grab
A screenshot from the video. We used our trusty old Flip on a tripod, so the quality isn’t quite as good as an iPhone would be.

2) Cutting and pasting the video description, since that’s important contextual information:

A response to the following prompt for a job application: “Please add a link to a 3-8 minute YouTube or Vimeo video of you answering the following question: What blogs and social media accounts do you most enjoy and why?” Here’s my answer!

With harmony vocals and Dylanesque cue cards by Emily Barton.

I should maybe add that I know this isn’t perfect—I’m pretty flat in the chorus, for example. (I tried to sing an octave higher on our first take, and I blew out my voice!) But since this is an application for a content gig, not an audition for America’s Got Talent, I’m hoping that won’t be a strike against me. 🙂

Also note that this is a parody, not a cover. Protected by the First Amendment, y’all!

3) The lyrics (with links):

I’m gonna tell you ’bout some blogs and tweets
Tell you what about them I think’s really neat
Conan O’Brien’s a major fave for me
His writing style is pure hilarity
A master of the joke-tweet, y’all

Next up’s a writing blog by my friend Erika
Her publication schedule only stops for Hannukah
She shares helpful ideas, and jobs involving writing
She isn’t currently selling, but if she ever does, I’m buying
I think Seth Godin would approve

I read Brian Morton, I love his gallows humor
For cycling it’s Treehugger, for butt jokes Amy Schumer
We want to hear a voice that entertains us,
Wins us over, makes us feel inspired
And if you think my thinking is definitive
The closer I am to hired, yeah
Closer I am to hired

My friend Richard likes to disrupt stodgy industries
He sees the way that books are changed by new technologies
I watched Tommy Caldwell on Insta climb the Dawn Wall
What he did with his friend Kevin was an inspiration to us all
I spent all eight Bush years getting my news from Talking Points Memo,
Got Obama, now I’m free

350.org lets me know the Earth’s in trouble
Boing Boing brings the weirdness, and NASA brings the Hubble
Good brands are built by telling stories like we did
While roasting mammoths ’round a fire
And if you think my thinking is definitive
The closer I am to hired, yeah
Closer I am to hired, yeah
Closer I am to hired, yeah
Closer I am to hired

4) There’s an Easter egg—or rather, a series of Easter eggs running throughout the video. Can you spot it/them? Let me know.

5) I’ll let you know if I get the job!

My Petition on Whitehouse.gov

Here’s what I want: I want to buy products made in the U.S. whenever possible. It seems like a simple thing we can do to help create and preserve American jobs. It’s easy to do this in a store, where the product or package says “Made in USA” (too infrequently), “Made in China” (much more frequently), etc. It’s hard to do this online.

I want to have the same information when shopping online that I do in a brick-and-mortar store: I want to be able to know that a Poof-Slinky football is made in the U.S., whereas a Nerf football is not. (Amazon didn’t tell me this; USMadeToys.com did. I got a Poof-Slinky football for Toby for Hanukkah!)

As my friend Bill Mann points out, if you want to only buy Albanian-made or Azerbaijani-made, this would be beneficial to you as well.

I think this is a straightforward, sensible, nonpartisan, and easy-to-implement idea. If you agree, can you sign, forward, share, tweet, telegraph, etc.?

Here’s the title of my petition:

Require online retailers to provide country of origin information about products sold over the Internet.

And here’s the description:

In stores of all kinds in the U.S., just about any product—clothing, electronics, food—displays its country of origin (COO): on the product itself, on the packaging, and/or on display information nearby.

This helps us make informed judgements about product quality. It lets us be consumer patriots who support the American economy by buying American goods. But we can’t buy American if we don’t know COO.

COO is a field that already exists in product databases. It is easily propagated with preexisting data.

We Americans can be consumer patriots when we shop in brick-and-mortar stores. We should be able to do so when we shop online, too. Help the Web catch up with in-person commerce. Help us create and preserve good American jobs. Help us all have the chance to be online consumer patriots.

Thanks for your support!

Alas, Poor Country

From Act 4, scene 3.

An excerpt, with an ellipsis in the middle.

Text cut and pasted from MIT’s Complete Works of William Shakespeare.

ROSS

Alas, poor country!
Almost afraid to know itself. It cannot
Be call’d our mother, but our grave; where nothing,
But who knows nothing, is once seen to smile;
Where sighs and groans and shrieks that rend the air
Are made, not mark’d; where violent sorrow seems
A modern ecstasy; the dead man’s knell
Is there scarce ask’d for who; and good men’s lives
Expire before the flowers in their caps,
Dying or ere they sicken.

MACDUFF

O, relation
Too nice, and yet too true!

MALCOLM

What’s the newest grief?

ROSS

That of an hour’s age doth hiss the speaker:
Each minute teems a new one.

[…] But I have words
That would be howl’d out in the desert air,
Where hearing should not latch them.

MACDUFF

What concern they?
The general cause? or is it a fee-grief
Due to some single breast?

ROSS

No mind that’s honest
But in it shares some woe; though the main part
Pertains to you alone.

MACDUFF

If it be mine,
Keep it not from me, quickly let me have it.

ROSS

Let not your ears despise my tongue for ever,
Which shall possess them with the heaviest sound
That ever yet they heard.

MACDUFF

Hum! I guess at it.

ROSS

Your castle is surprised; your wife and babes
Savagely slaughter’d: to relate the manner,
Were, on the quarry of these murder’d deer,
To add the death of you.

MALCOLM

Merciful heaven!
What, man! ne’er pull your hat upon your brows;
Give sorrow words: the grief that does not speak
Whispers the o’er-fraught heart and bids it break.

MACDUFF

My children too?

ROSS

Wife, children, servants, all
That could be found.

MACDUFF

And I must be from thence!
My wife kill’d too?

ROSS

I have said.

MALCOLM

Be comforted:
Let’s make us medicines of our great revenge,
To cure this deadly grief.

MACDUFF

He has no children. All my pretty ones?
Did you say all? O hell-kite! All?
What, all my pretty chickens and their dam
At one fell swoop?

Farewell, Our Wherewithal

After shrinking the government “to the size of a chipmunk and garrotting it in a birdbath,” as an experimental reactionary economist once famously put it, the next challenge for my country’s wealthy was how to destroy money itself. They owned all of it; they’d worked hard to hoard it, like toy houses in a children’s real-estate game; wasn’t it theirs to destroy, if they so chose?

The favorite pastime for the richest rich became a showy and audacious fiscal suicide. A grand, public shooting of oneself in one’s diamond-clad foot; in a word, autodissolution. They’d convert their wealth to cash, pile it in the public square, and torch it. Turn it to gold, take it to sea, dump it. Creativity scored points among their class: sell all property, holdings, assets, cars; buy out the entire printed currency of a small, obscure nation; fly all those bills out over the ocean in their one last private jet; blow up the jet; film the explosion from their one last yacht; torch the yacht; escape in a cheap dinghy with the film canister.

It was all over so quickly! Which, I suppose, is easy when one percent of the people own ninety-nine percent of the money. Or whatever it was. The cliquishness of the no-longer-rich continued after their self-destruction; their avant-garde got new digs in elite shantytowns, in the ruins of public parks, under bridges.

As a cleaner of the undersides of bridges, I know this last group well. My work was once my job, but now it is my hobby, something I still consider to be my civic duty, even though there’s no longer any civitas to speak of, not as we once knew it. The under-bridge rich love me, but treat me like the hired help, or like they remember treating hired help. “You missed a spot,” they say. “You incompetent wretch!” “I don’t report to you,” I reply. “Don’t forget I chose this,” they say. “Chose it!” They cross their arms in a huff, scratch their new boils. “I didn’t,” I say.

VOOM, AH-WHOOM; or, The Cat in the Hat Strikes Back

Every time I read this (which is often—sometimes nightly; from Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat Comes Back; p. 59 in the Beginner Books Book Club Edition, copyright 1958—our copy still in great shape and going strong!):

Then the Voom…
It went voom!
And, oh boy! What a voom!

Now, don’t ask me what Voom is.
I never will know.
But, boy! Let me tell you
It does clean up snow!

I think of this, the scariest moment in Cat’s Cradle, when the dead body of “Papa” falls into the ocean, freezing the entire planet (from the fifty-sixth printing of the New Dell Edition; copyright is 1963, print date is July 1983—half the age of the Seuss, and completely falling apart, but still functional!):

There was a sound like that of the gentle closing of a portal as big as the sky, the great door of heaven being closed softly. It was a grand ah-whoom.

I opened my eyes—and all the sea was ice-nine.

The moist green earth was a blue-white pearl.

The sky darkened. Borasisi, the sun, became a sickly yellow ball, tiny and cruel.

The sky was filled with worms. The worms were tornadoes.

In other words, for me, reading The Cat in the Hat Comes Back brings back childhood Reagan-era fears of a nuclear war—isn’t it about the Bomb, the arms race, the Cold War, capitalism, American exceptionalism?

Much of Seuss, in a way, is about capitalism—about the anxiety of a culture of conspicuous consumption (“Have you a Zans for cans? You should.” “We have the only Gack in town.” “[Y]ou should get a Yink.” “All girls […] [s]hould have a pet like this at home.”).

But that enthusiastic voom!—it freaks me out.

Meet the New Pleasure Dome, Same as the Old Pleasure Dome

(Week-of-unrelated-quotes catch-up post, three of five.)

From Eliot Weinberger’s critique of a show at the Met, “The World of Khubiliai Khan: Chinese Art in the Yuan Dynasty,” which closed last month:

Yuan meant “origin”—as in “back to the origins”—and Khubilai [Khan] revived ancient Confucian court rituals and had a dynastic history written in the traditional manner to justify its heaven-endowed legitimacy. His greatest claim as a Chinese emperor was that the Yuan eventually unified the country as it had not been in centuries. The Jin Dynasty had conquered half of the Song Dynasty, but the southern portion continued on for 150 years. The Southern Song, a wealthier and more populated region, with some 50 million people, had become weak and bankrupt as—in a pattern that has become all too familiar—the rich managed to legally avoid paying taxes while military expenses greatly increased.

—Eliot Weinberger, “Xanadu in New York,” The New York Review of Books, 23 December 2010

Ten Years Old

Ten years ago today, I registered the domain name tomhop.com for the first time. This Web site remains as infrequently visited now as it has been since before Al Gore was chosen as President by a majority of the American electorate.

I’ve been renewing the domain once a year ever since; I’ve never renewed for more than a year, because in a way, I’m always astounded that the Web as we know it, as we experience it, continues to exist. It’s already a difficult-for-a-layperson-to-fully-grasp quadrillion-tentacled octopus. But I keep expecting it to be, say, colonized by zombie-clouds run by the Swedish mob, or poached by a consortium of Romanian aspirin-by-mail dealers, or purchased outright by a shadow holding company of cryogenically frozen pharmaceutical-industry billionaire gangster-tycoons.

In the past week, I’ve been digging through a few years of infrequent posts—I can’t imagine what it’s like to dig through old posts when you write a blog more frequently than once or twice a month—and one thing I’ve been reminded of is that links become dead rather quickly. Over the years, they also go dead rather thoroughly. Also—and this is not unrelated—the written posts with what feels like the longest shelf life are the ones that are meant to stand alone. Not writing meant to point elsewhere, or comment on something that someone else wrote, published somewhere else—just short things, nothing but what they are, sent out into the void.

Whatever the lesson is there, it applies to everything, I think.

I’m with Senator Coco

Senator CocoAugust 2009, in an alternate universe: Ted Kennedy dies; Conan O’Brien has been hosting The Tonight Show for just shy of three months, but it is already clear to NBC executives that, to them, the new guy is just not working out; at the same time, Jay Leno has decided that he doesn’t really want to do The Jay Leno Show at all, so plans for the new show are scrapped, and Leno returns to his old job; Conan O’Brien, more devastated at the news of the death of the great legislator than he is at the loss of his relatively new hosting gig, and casting about for his next career move, makes a brisk, ambitious, and inspired decision: he moves back to his hometown of Brookline, Massachusetts with his family, establishes residency, and announces his campaign for senate, all during the month of September; Coco wins the primary in December handily, and in January 2010, defeats Republican Scott Brown in a landslide.

In this alternate universe that is entirely identical to our universe except for these two wrongs made into one right, the logic of O’Brien succeeding Kennedy is clear to everyone: after the candidacy, victory, and eventual seating of fellow Saturday Night Live veteran Al Franken, the idea of a comedian senator is not just not unusual, but even desirable to Democrats, who find themselves constantly on the verge of tears these days; the commonality between the two men of strong Irish Catholic family backgrounds (Kennedy the youngest of nine children, O’Brien the third of six) is poignant and meaningful for many Massachusetts voters, who take the responsibility of choosing their next senator quite seriously; the Harvard connection means something as well; the state is joyous—ecstatic, even—in welcoming home a local boy made good.

O’Brien brings his entire staff with him to Boston, all of whom transition quite easily, it is reported, from entertainment to politics; the campaign is generally regarded by the public and the media as the funniest in the nation’s history. Scott Brown, on election day in January 2010, is caught on camera chuckling to himself as he leaves the voting booth. He tells reporters that he couldn’t help it—he, like nearly everyone in the state, voted for O’Brien. His opponent’s last campaign speech had been just too hilarious. Coco, the former Cosmo centerfold tells the cameras, deserves to be the next senator from Massachusetts.

Jay Leno, in the meantime, after only a few months of being back as host of The Tonight Show, decides that the franchise itself has been cursed. Its ratings, and viewers, had never quite returned to the levels where they’d once been. The thrill, he realizes, is gone as well; over the summer of 2009, he’d developed a taste for not being on television every night, and for spending more quality time with his vast automobile collection. In January 2010, Leno abruptly quits. (NBC executives, in what is described in a press release as a bold, audacious, and outside-the-box move, hire Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin away from their jobs at the Fox News Channel as the new Johnny and Ed; the show, and its co-hosts, subsequently wither away into obscurity.) Leno, inspired by O’Brien’s career shift to a life of service, moves back to his hometown of Andover, Massachusetts, bringing with him all of his many cars. Having announced that he, too, is retiring from the entertainment business for good, he begins work as a part-time guidance counselor and shop instructor at Andover High.

(N.B.: Image borrowed from Mike Mitchell.)