Hmm Weekly for August 3, 2020

According to our calculations, the world began on a Tuesday

Hmm Weekly for August 3, 2020


How Did You Sleep Last Night?

By Lori Teresa Yearwood

Laura Watanabe. Photo by Lori Teresa Yearwood.

EVERY NIGHT, LAURA Watanabe lies down in bed, places an oxygen mask on her face, and watches a Japanese cartoon on her iPad. The program, Naruto, is about a child who wants to become a ninja and win the recognition of his peers. But every night, Watanabe’s mind continues to race across the chaotic terrain of the past year, a time during which she has gone from being a kind of ninja herself—a woman who ran a machine shop and played ice hockey in her spare time—to a woman who has lost her ability to walk without the aid of crutches that clasp her forearms.

In that decline, Watanabe has stayed at her job in Salt Lake City, but has had to cut her 40-hour work weeks to 20 or fewer hours. Meanwhile, her pay has been cut by $2 an hour because of the economic fallout that her employers have been facing due to COVID-19.

Today, the 38-year-old is pulling in less than half what she earned before Thanksgiving. Which means she can no longer afford her rent.

“It’s hard to take in. I used to flip over big snow blowers to work on them and now I have trouble carrying around a leaf blower. No, I haven’t been sleeping very well lately at all.”

Watanabe says that she endured a week of homelessness when she was in her 20s, after a nasty relationship breakup. Back then, she lived in her car and pulled herself out of her misfortune. But this time is different, Watanabe says. This time she knew she needed to reach out to her parents in St. Louis for help.

In late May, the management at the apartment complex where she was living had taped a note to her door, announcing that since her year-long lease was up, her rent was increasing from $879 a month to $1,100. Currently, market-rate rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Salt Lake City is about $1,100. That alone would have been enough reason to call her parents. But there was more. Watanabe, despite being insured, had racked up more than $10,000 in health insurance deductible fees.

“Like everybody else right now, I have a lot of stress,” she said. “And I have medical issues that add to it. I am just trying to figure out how to get through life and be able to live and have the basics.”

Watanabe’s parents have stepped in to cover any rent Watanabe can’t pay herself, and at the beginning of August, she moved into another one-bedroom apartment two miles away. Too much had happened to stay in her old place.

A few days before Thanksgiving, “The ground started to feel like it was moving beneath me and my feet started feeling heavier,” Watanabe said. Then, the day after Thanksgiving, her 14-year-old chihuahua mix, Linus, began to die from kidney failure.

“His death destroyed me,” Watanabe said.

But she had to keep going.

Her new apartment costs $100 more a month than her previous one, but it’s cleaner and safer, Watanabe says. And when everything else appears to be stuck in a continual state of disintegration, the move somehow presented the feeling of hope that her parents were willing to help finance.

Watanabe knows that having the kind of safety net that she has is not the norm in the United States, a country where medical debt is a leading cause of bankruptcy and an increasingly common cause of homelessness. One example: a University of Washington study, published in June, in Inquiry: The Journal of Health Care Organization, Provision, and Financing, found that of the people in King County, Washington, who were surveyed and experiencing homelessness, unpaid medical bills were their primary source of debt—and that debt extended their homelessness by an average of two years.

Despite the money Watanabe has spent on her insurance—more than $500 a month—none of her doctors have been able to find the cause of her declining health. Throughout all the scans, MRI’s, and blood tests, frightening things have transpired. Watanabe has fallen down at least three times. The right side of her body has intermittently frozen in a blaze of excruciating nerve pain that can last up to half a day. Then Watanabe began having trouble with finding the right setting on her breathing machine, something she started using a year and a half ago, after contracting a lung infection. One morning her oxygen levels fell so low that she was unable to eat her cereal without falling back asleep while she was chewing.

“It’s been terrifying. I have gotten to the point where I had to stop having expectations of getting some kind of answers from the doctors because I couldn’t mentally take it anymore. I would get my hopes up and then I kept hearing: ‘We’re going to refer you to this doctor…’”

The stiffness in her neck has gotten so bad that it takes her between 30 minutes and an hour to massage and heat her neck so that she can turn her head.

Now, in her new apartment, when Watanabe lies down to go to sleep, the thought that takes over all others is: “Am I going to wake up and not be able to turn my head?”

“How Did You Sleep Last Night?” is an ongoing series.

Another Week, Another Hmm Weekly

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Re: Hmm Weekly for July 21, 2020

Saltines can be substituted for Zephyrettes
—Megan Mitchell



First, I have not made any sandwiches so I hope the subject line did not get your hopes up.

The Woman's Institute Library of Cookery, Volume 4 (1927, probably), does not contain a particularly large amount of sandwich recipes but it does have interesting general sandwich making advice.  It’s also illustrated. From the section titled “General Principles of Sandwich Making”:

104. MAKING SANDWICHES.--The point that should be remembered about sandwiches is that they should be as dainty as possible. Therefore, the bread should usually be cut thin and the crust should be removed. If a large number of sandwiches are to be made, it is often a good idea to remove the crust from the loaf, as shown in Fig. 20, before slicing the bread. More frequently, however, the cutting is done first, as in Fig. 21.

It's a five volume series.  Vol. four also addresses salads, cold and frozen desserts, cakes, cookies, puddings, pastries, and pies.  Should you be considering branching out.


All the best,
Jon Endicott



Just wanted to say I really enjoyed The Sophist today. There was something about, “. . . and I briefly thought about what it would be like if I had to take off my plague mask to vomit,” that I really connected with. I often wonder what it will be like when my daughters (ages 6 & 7), have to do XY or Z activity while masked. . . and the thought hits me in the gut the same way that climate change and the pandemic do. It's not the dull feeling of dread that these realities produce daily, but the acute nausea that strikes every so often. We are imploding on ourselves in a feedback loop of greed and stupidity, and the consequences our kids will face as a result are horrifying.

On the bright side, I was pleasantly surprised Poopy Puppy’s shit was aflame!

Andy Knapp


Re: Hmm Weekly for June 23, 2020

Fantastic issue!!
—Gerald Ross


Re: Hmm Weekly for June 16, 2020

We talk about tomorrow like it could be some promised land, but tomorrow is just another today you haven’t started slogging through yet.

Beautiful response from The Sophist, who transcended the epithet just this once. Thanks.

—Michael Anft


Children’s Stories

I hadn't thought about “The Night of the Leonids” in decades (Hmm Weekly for July 21, 2020). It was probably in one of those later Elementary School reading textbooks named, like, “Serendipity” or “Illusions” or something. Maybe next to “The Goalie that Scored a Goal.” I didn't know anything about Canadian boarding schools or Central Park. Still don't, really. Why either one of those stuck to the wallpaper is anyone's guess.

I, too, remembered the narrator’s grandparent as his grandfather. I would have placed a bar bet on it.

Shit. What else did I get wrong?

—Alex Neth


We encourage you to correspond with us! Email


Ask The Sophist

Dear The Sophist,
I used to deal a little weed back in junior college. I had a friend who had a friend and I’d buy a quarter pound, break it up into three ounces and a few smaller bags and some rolled joints, and I’d quadruple my money. I quit dealing the day a stranger walked up to me and asked me to sell them some weed because they heard I sold weed.

Years later I hardly smoke it, just a little now and then socially, until I started thinking about getting my medical card. I have a trick back and every once in a while it locks up and I can barely stand up straight and can’t even walk. I got some muscle relaxers from my doctor, some stuff called cyclobenzaprine, and it helps, but it just wrecks me—it doesn’t get me high, it just makes me sleep and then when I wake up the next morning I feel like, well, I feel like I’ve been drugged.

So I decided to try the cannabis route and paid the state 50 bucks, I think it was, to get registered as a card-carrying cannabis consumer, and then another two Benjamins to go see a dude at a clinic or something, whose eyes lit up when I showed him my pill bottle. He had all kinds of ideas for me, balms, certain strains of weed that map out to an analog of my old-school pharmacology, but without the side effects. I went in for some balm and cannabis-laced mints, and it does the trick, and I would not consider operating heavy machinery or making any important decisions after I knock down 5 or 10 mg. of “relaxing mints.”

My question is, I have friends who know I have my card and have asked me to pick them up some “flower” (or whatever these new-era potheads call the shit you smoke), and they give me the cash, so am I back to being a dealer, only worse, because I’m not even making any money?

Relaxed on the Couch

Dear Weeded Out,
You use weed (or elaborate weed-derived authorized quasi-medical products) to ease your troubles, yet troubles are haunting you anyway. You are having a "flashback" to the "bad trip" of being on the wrong side of the marijuana laws, back when the wrong side of the marijuana laws was a dangerous place to be. How can you get yourself to the mellow condition you deserve?

This country is embarked on at least two different experiments around marijuana use right now. One experiment is to discover what happens when the stigma and sanctions surrounding a feel-good substance are lifted at the precise moment that more and more people find themselves leading feel-bad lives. Setting the paranoia of Jeff Sessions or the Reefer Madness revivalists aside, it seems possible that the future in which weed is routinely available while the only thing this country is good at producing anymore is video games might not be the very most inspiring outcome of our experiment in self-government; then again, there are certainly worse outcomes (some involving Jeff Sessions) close at hand.

The other experiment, the one you're caught up in, is more conceptual. What happens when a whole set of harsh laws and the social practices built up around them are revealed, in a relatively short span of time, to have been completely contingent and pointless? How does society square the mythic propaganda figure of the Gateway Drug Pusher and the horrors of decades of anti-drug domestic warfare and the mass ordeal of millions of simple possession busts with the sudden emergence of these licensed goofball feel-better clinics or dispensaries, let alone straight recreational legalization?

It's a wrenching experience, like leaning and twisting to get something out of the bottom rear of the dishwasher after your lumbar region turns 45. And when your friends ask you to score them  some "flower" (really? "Flower"?), they're asking you to take on extra weight—you, with your back in the condition it's in!

Then again, you did let your friends know you had your card, in a way that led them to ask you to undertake some mischief on their behalf, which your use of tenses implies you have been willing to do. But if you really liked doing it, you wouldn't have needed to write in. So: how do you reconcile your own conflicted feelings and allow yourself to let your buddies ("bud"-dies, get it?) down?

Despite your sympathy toward them, you and your friends are approaching the unsettled weed question from slightly yet importantly different positions. Your friends are caught between being socially permitted to use weed and being legally forbidden to buy it. You are caught between being legally permitted to buy weed and being legally forbidden to resell it. Your friends, "with it" as they may feel, are trailing behind you on history's forward march, and they are a drag on your own progress, and also your back treatment.

That latter point is important! Back pain is subjective to each person and elusive to mechanical treatment by medical science. It tends to respond to meaningful rituals of care; if you feel like  you're able to do something that controls your back pain, that feeling will likely help you control your back pain. The Sophist's lower back hurts right now, but The Sophist has confidence that the set of less-unpleasant stretches The Sophist made note of, the one time The Sophist went to physical therapy, will more often than not make it hurt less— and therefore The Sophist can compartmentalize the discomfort and keep on typing.

For you, it's the mints and the balm. Your friends are just being friendly, and you want to be friendly in return, but they are stepping on your all-important relationship with your back. Do them, and your back, the greater kindness of insisting they join you in the rapidly approaching future, in which there are no weed dealers, just equal citizens of the lawful realm of legal marijuana. Next time your pals ask you to go shopping, tell them you don't want them to have to depend on you for something they should be free to handle themselves. Emphasize what a fun and easy caper it was to get your own card, and tell them how the guy at the clinic had so many incredible options to choose from, it was hard for an amateur smoker like yourself to even make sense of them all. They owe it to themselves to see it firsthand. And if they're worried about coming up with a justification, remind them that back pain can be invisible and self-reported.

Don't neglect your cat-camels,
The Sophist

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WE CONTINUE TO present select recipes from the leviathan and encyclopedic 1896 edition of The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book, by Fannie Merritt Farmer, Principal of the Boston Cooking-School.

Anchovy Sandwiches.
Rub the yolks of hard boiled eggs to a paste. Moisten with soft butter and season with Anchovy essence. Spread mixture between thin slices of buttered bread prepared as for Bread and Butter Folds.

Egg Sandwiches.
Chop finely the whites of hard boiled eggs; force the yolks through a strainer or potato ricer. Mix yolks and whites, season with salt and pepper, and moisten with mayonnaise or Cream Salad Dressing. Spread mixture between thin slices of buttered bread prepared as for Bread and Butter Folds.

Sliced Ham Sandwiches.
Slice cold boiled ham as thinly as possible. Put between thin slices of buttered bread prepared as for Bread and Butter Folds.

If you make one of these sandwiches, before you eat it, please won’t you send a picture to Next week: CANAPÉS

HMM WEEKLY IS  written by Tom Scocca, editor, and Joe MacF, creative director. If   you enjoy Hmm Weekly, please let a friend know about it! If you're reading this because someone forwarded it to you, go ahead and sign up  for a copy of your own right now.
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