Hmm Weekly for May 12, 2020

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Hmm Weekly for May 12, 2020

Another Week, Another Hmm Weekly

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How Did You Sleep Last Night?

By Lori Teresa Yearwood

MARK DODSON, M.D., sat down at the dinner table in his house in an elegant Salt Lake City neighborhood called The Avenues and ate a meal that his wife cooked from scratch. He doesn’t so much remember the meal, but he says it was likely fish or chicken—followed by water, which he knows to be true because that is the way she runs their household; like clockwork, every breakfast and dinner is made from scratch followed by water.

Dodson, 58, has been working as a gynecological oncologist for 25 years. He would do the surgery at LDS Hospital in the Avenues, which is only two stoplights away from his home.

The next day, he would perform surgery on me—“the debulking,” he and his medical colleagues called it. “Taking out people’s organs is what every surgeon dreams of doing,” he said afterward. “This is what I do for fun. I knew yours was going to be huge. It’s a surgeon’s dream because the potential of being cured by what I do is real. I do 25 or so of these kinds of surgeries a year. The rest are simpler.”

After dinner, Dr. Dodson drank his espresso and reached into a plastic bag for a few dark chocolate Dove medallion chocolates. Then he read a good book. That night it was The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York, by Deborah Blum.

“They would poison people and find ways not to be found out,” Dodson said. “That led to the development of the medical examiner’s office. That used to be a very political job. People paid the medical examiner’s office not to notice that someone had been poisoned with carbon monoxide, for example.”

Dodson is a red-headed man with blue eyes and a physique shaped by regular core-strengthening exercises and faithful time on his elliptical. He grew up with the flowering dogwoods in the backwoods of Tennessee, where he was raised by a full-time schoolteacher who, in addition to working, made breakfast and dinner three times a day, seven days a week.

“My father worked, too, but I saw that women work twice as hard to get to where a man has to get,” Dodson said. “That is why I specialized in female surgery. I want to help women.”

As it always does, sleep came easily to Dodson—“within 2–3 minutes of laying my head on the pillow,” he told me. The room was dark without noises, the Sealy Posturepedic mattress and pillow delightfully firm. He had to get up only once, to take out Ricki, his 8-month-old standard poodle, for a bathroom break.

“I always sleep well," Dodson said. "The scary part for me is what I can’t control. I knew I wasn’t going to lose you on that table. The scary part for you is what you can’t control.”

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



Dear The Sophist,
In the mail the other day we got an envelope from the U.S. Department of the Treasury that appeared to contain a government stimulus check for my late sister-in law, who died earlier this year. There’s a box on the front of the envelope—we didn’t open it—that reads IF RECIPIENT DECEASED CHECK HERE AND DROP IN MAILBOX, so I checked the box and dropped it in a mailbox. A few days later the box-checked envelope made its way back to our address. What should I do?

Stimulated by Guilt

Dear Stimulated,
If I were here to give you ethical advice, I would say that you made a good-faith effort to return the misdirected government funds, and the government failed to do its part to take them back. Or, technically, an independent government agency that is under attack by the rest of the executive branch failed to relay your money back to the hostile government, but let's set that aside. Either way, the money has made its way to you again. It is not yours, yet the government seems bent on forfeiting it—so the most useful and helpful thing to do would be to sign the check over to a food bank, since the U.S. Department of Agriculture has currently left farmers to plow undistributed crops back into the ground while people line up all day to get food relief from charity.

But you did not write for ethical advice. You wrote to me, whose purpose is to try to help you justify doing whatever it is you want to do. So. Can you keep the money? It is a very small amount of money, from the government's point of view. If it's the full $1,200  stimulus, and you were to give it back to the president, and I just did the math right, he could spend it on adding a little less than four inches to the length of his border wall—insignificant, yet also evil. Much better to spend the money on good times, in the memory of your lost loved one, who was still here for part of this tax year, after all.

Except! The Sophist may bend logic and arguments to suit your wishes, but I can't change the state of the world. Although our current federal government can do almost nothing effectively, it can still hassle regular folks, and it likely will. The IRS has more or less quit going after corporate tax evasion, but it is busily auditing poor people to make sure nobody got too much from the earned income tax credit. For our purposes here, that means they're going to end up prosecuting people who got $1,200 through bureaucratic error, while the people who scored $100 million contracts for nonexistent shipments of PPE skate free. This is how what's left of America works now; your seeming good fortune must go, like so many shredded cabbages, back into the soil unsavored. I'd tell you to burn the check, but really you should put it in a file folder, to pull out when the authorities come looking for you. Hope it helps then!

Good luck,
The Sophist

Dear The Sophist,
I've had an idea for an advice column kicking around forever. I drafted up a whole debut version of it once—way back in the 20th century. But before we ever got around to putting it into print, the New York Times Magazine up and came out with its The Ethicist column, which would have made my column look like a mere parody of that, rather than a concept that could stand on its own. Now I'm too old to care about that, and The Ethicist messed around with its format anyway and I'm not even sure who writes it. So I return to a question that's gone unanswered since before the Forever War, a question that's outlived the newspaper it would have been published in: If I want to launch an advice column, and I need material, is it OK to make up a fake letter to get it started?


Dear Anonymous,
It is a settled fact that the egg did, in fact, come before the chicken—an egg fertilized by the mating of two amorous and mutating fowl who had almost, but not quite, attained chickenhood. Without that primeval creative act, we might never have had a chicken, let alone chicken eggs as we know them—those same eggs, moreover, that you cannot make an omelet without breaking. You cannot, furthermore, cook that omelet without a fire, and as the man sang in one of his only two good songs, you can't start a fire without a spark. Nothing was ever born from nothing.

How can the people know what to write to your column, if they don't know what the column would be? You could try soliciting letters from people in advance, but you'd just be conscripting them into a different kind of artificiality, pressing them to pretend to be addressing something that doesn't yet exist. No one will be satisfied, and the pump will go unprimed, so you can't even wash down your omelet with a glass of water. Go ahead, make up a letter yourself. Gin up another letter with a colleague who has a real question, but who knows how to work with you to play the game. It's not just OK, it's your duty. The readers will come around when they're ready. Or they won't, if the column stinks. If they don't, it won't be because you didn't give them the best questions you could.

Go get 'em,
The Sophist

Got a question for The Sophist? Submit it to



This week’s thought is from Tom Peyer

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Spring, Part 10: Recap

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WE KEEP TELLING YOU we will soon exhaust our selection of recipes for ancient but reproducible sandwiches, taken from The Up-To-Date Sandwich Book: 400 Ways to Make a Sandwich,  by Eva Greene Fuller; 1909; McClurg and Co., Chicago, found in the  public domain for the delectation of all. What will we do for provocative Public Domain Content when we have exhausted our supply of  sandwich recipes?

Chop five hard-boiled eggs very fine. Stone and chop fifteen large olives and mix with the egg, moisten all with three tablespoonfuls of melted butter, season with salt and pepper, and mix to a moist paste. Spread on this slices of lightly buttered white bread. Put two slices together and garnish with an olive.

To one pint of cold cooked fish, add two hard-boiled eggs chopped fine, two teaspoonfuls of capers, and a little mayonnaise to moisten. Mix and spread on thin slices of lightly buttered white bread, cover with another slice, and cut in strips. Add a sprinkling of finely chopped cress to the top of each sandwich; rub the yolk of a hard-boiled egg through a sieve and chop the white very fine. Add a sprinkling of the yolk to the cress on half the number of sandwiches, adding the white to the other half. Then arrange them in groups of twos, one of each color on the serving plate. Any cold meat may be used instead of the fish.

Wash, bone, and skin one-half pound of sardellen and mash to a paste. Rub together the yolks of two hard-boiled eggs and one teaspoonful of butter until smooth, then add the sardellen paste. Mix and spread on small squares of buttered toast. Serve with an olive.

If you make one of these sandwiches, before you eat it, please send a picture to

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