Closeup of a dirty baseball showing the red stitches

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Harvey Memories, Exhausting Coworkers, and Sloppy Baseballs: Five Things That Made Us Smarter This Week

From surviving the storm to thriving in the office, we learned a lot in the last seven days

We’re living in a world awash with content—from must-read articles and binge-worthy shows to epic tweetstorms and viral TikToks and all sorts of clickbait in between. The Elective is here to help cut through the noise. Each week, members of the Elective team share the books, articles, documentaries, podcasts, and experiences that not only made them smarter but also changed how they see the world around them and, often, how they see themselves.

This week we lead off with a special, longer item: a personal reflection on Hurricane Harvey, the storm’s incredible destruction, and the way it changed one Houston family.

Photo of a living room with couches and chairs covered in elevated toys, furniture, and rugs

Courtesy Michelle Cruz Arnold

The calm before the storm...

What Harvey Taught Us

On August 26, 2017, my world—and the lives, hopes, and dreams of many families living along the Gulf Coast—was turned upside down when Hurricane Harvey, a catastrophic category four storm, made landfall in Texas and Louisiana. One of the costliest natural disasters in American history, it ultimately claimed 100 lives and caused $125 billion in damage. The primary source of the destruction was rainfall-induced flooding. In Texas alone, 300,000 structures and 500,000 cars were damaged or destroyed. Our home was among them.

As a Houstonian, hurricanes are a part of life and we always take preparation seriously. We respect Mother Nature and deeply appreciate the loss our Gulf Coast neighbors can experience during hurricane season. As a lifelong Texan, I had lived through multiple hurricanes before 2017. But Harvey was different. More than 40 inches of water fell on our Meyerland neighborhood, in southwest Houston, as the storm meandered across the coast. At least 30,000 people were displaced from their homes, and more than 17,000 were rescued from rising water in their homes.

Grid of four photos, two by two, documenting dirty brown storm waters flooding, clockwise from top left, the bathroom up to the toilet seat, the kitchen midway to the top of the counters, a leaving room up to a table top, and a dining room nearly to the top of the table

Courtesy Michelle Cruz Arnold

The scene inside the Arnold home in the wake of Hurricane Harvey's destructive rainfall.

My family—husband John and then-3-year-old son George—went to bed on August 25 uncertain what Harvey would bring. We had experienced very heavy rain and flooding before; we believed we would again be spared. But I couldn’t sleep and stayed up nervously elevating items and binging coverage of the storm. I was also in close contact with my sister Julie and brother-in-law Ian—who are also neighbors—about their experience. Their home began taking on water around 1 a.m. on August 26. Two hours later, I woke up John as water entered our home.

We elevated more items and moved things to the second floor as the water continued rising, only stopping when it was close to hip height. In the end, nearly three feet of water flooded our home. Once the water rose above our electrical sockets downstairs and submerged our air-conditioning units, we knew we needed to get out. And we did, leaving on a small boat captained by generous fellow Texans and commandeered by my brother-in-law. We embarked from the area that used to be our garage; made the short trip to a nearby neighbor’s house that, though flooded, miraculously still had power upstairs; and stayed there for 12 hours before moving to another neighbor and then a hotel for three days.

Photo of a construction vehicle next to a demolished home on the left, and on the right a two-story home with an in-ground swimming pool and green yard.

Courtesy Michelle Cruz Arnold

The demolished Arnold residence (left), with young George in the frame for scale, and the home that was built in its place.

We never lived in our now-flooded home again. The water that displaced us was brown, murky, and smelled terrible. It was everywhere, and it ruined everything: the entire first floor, our yard, our cars. After careful thought, we tore down the house and built a new, elevated one in its place. The process took several agonizing years, and we didn’t move in until February 14, 2020—just in time to ride out a global pandemic.

It’s hurricane season again, and we’re confident the changes we’ve made will help us withstand another storm. One of the biggest lessons Harvey taught us is to stay prepared. This means keeping copies of insurance policies and phone numbers handy, having updated photos of our home and valuables, and enough propane and cash to last for a week. With experience, a house raised six feet up, and a neighborhood full of family and friends, we are ready to survive anything together. We won’t mourn our losses on the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Harvey—we’ll celebrate the community, and family, that has thrived in spite of it. —Michelle Cruz Arnold

Black and white photo of a man's hand checking off towns on map in 1940s

Archive Holdings Inc./Getty Images

Thank you for attending this presentation of "Better Insulate a District" from the firm of Jerry M. Ander, Esq. DDS.

Rebuilding a House Divided

We’re still a few months away from the 2022 midterm elections, but lawmakers and political operatives have been working for the last few years to literally redraw the battle lines. In March, the data wizards at FiveThirtyEight analyzed the results of intensive gerrymandering by both parties, finding this year’s congressional map is actually split more evenly between red-leaning and blue-leaning districts than it has been in a long time. That sounds like progress, but the devil is in the details. Yes the overall map is more evenly divided, but the districts in individual states are even more sharply skewed. “Put bluntly, the national House map still isn't fair; its gerrymanders are just more fairly balanced,” report Nathaniel Rakich and Elena Majia. “And the unfairness of the individual maps has other important consequences.” The most significant result of lawmakers’ increasingly precise herding of voters is a lack of real competitiveness in individual races. “The number of swing districts has been on the decline for decades thanks to factors like ideological self-sorting and increased polarization,” Rakich and Majia write. “When the dust settles, the 2022 congressional map could have the fewest swing seats in a generation.” 

This is bad not because it benefits one party or the other, but because it produces a Congress much more polarized than the people it’s supposed to represent. When lawmakers run in “safe” districts, their greatest reelection threat comes in primary contests where they might get outflanked by someone more extreme. The incentive to appeal to moderate, compromise-oriented voters—the kind of people who tune in for the general election but are less likely to vote in primaries—all but disappears. Years of court battles to rein in partisan gerrymanders have gone nowhere, but there’s an interesting push from a group of Constitutional scholars to attack the problem a different way: expand the House of Representatives. “Part of the crisis of American democracy today is a crisis of trust in government,” reads a proposal from Our Common Purpose, a bipartisan group of reformers looking to strengthen our civic institutions. “Building a closer connection between individual citizens and their representatives could be a significant step toward restoring some of that trust.” I don’t know if smaller districts will help, but it’s certainly time for some creative ideas to rebuild trust and make Congress work. —Stefanie Sanford

Businessman in a gray suit with vampire fangs outside an office building

ajr_images/Getty Images

I don't like the vibe Chad's bringing into this meeting...

Meeting Hold from Vlad the Complainer

I love vampires. Not the sparkle monsters of Twilight, though I did read it as a middle school student. My guilty pleasure is urban fantasy (think Neil Gaiman and American Gods and Ilona Andrews and Magic Strikes), which is full of Dracula re-imaginings. This week I learned about yet another kind of vampire, one with applications to daily work life. The energy vampire is a colleague who leaves a path of tired, frustrated, and emotionally exhausted coworkers in their wake. Their key identifiers are consistent complaining coupled with unreasonable expectations on others' time (examples include message-bombing and meetings spent complaining). They likely are not intentionally malicious, but instead lack the self-awareness to understand the effect of their words on others. For example, an energy vampire might not realize that by spending a meeting complaining, they not only cause their coworker to lose time but also diminish their productivity for the rest of the day. I will also note that energy vampires exhibit a consistent pattern of behavior—the article does not discourage the occasional venting or discussion of real challenges and their solutions.

This concept struck me for two reasons. First, companies are figuring out their return-to-office plans—how and when to come in, if at all—and for many people, a large reason to work in person is social. This dynamic, plus the fact that many of us are relearning—and creating—social norms, means managing energy vampires can be difficult. The article offers some simple yet important advice: establish boundaries. Instead of allowing repeated negative interactions to take a colleague from friend to vamp, we can allocate specific times to socialize, reply to non-work-related messages only at certain times, redirect conversations, and focus on controlling our own reactions to a negative colleague. And, second, it led me to reflect on my own behavior. How am I taking up my colleagues' time? What are my intentions if I am sharing a problem? I don't think there is a right or wrong answer here, and importantly, this article was not accusatory (Watch out—if you do x and y you're a vamp!!). Rather, it was a positive reminder that as we adjust to yet another workplace change in two-plus years of constant turmoil, we can each do our part to support our own emotional wellbeing and that of our colleagues. —Hannah Van Drie

 A tractor with metal wheels to curtail travel on public roads but useful in fields is parked at an Amish farm in Lancaster County, PA.

gsheldon/Getty Images

Looks punishing and unforgiving; would ride.

When the Steel Meets the Road

Researching briefs for this space always ends up making me feel a little smarter. Sometimes, I start out writing about one thing, only to discover a really interesting semi-related factoid that seizes my attention. Recently, that happened while researching the topic of steel. It started when I saw a Bloomberg News report on how China’s property market crisis could result in one-third of the country’s steel mills going into bankruptcy. This, after Chinese mills accounted for around half the world’s steel output last year. As a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh, nestled in what was once America’s most famous steel-producing region, the Chinese downturn caught my attention. And as I did some quick research about the current state of steel in Pennsylvania, I inadvertently came across an article from The Drive, “Steel Wheels on Tractors Help the Amish and Mennonites Avoid Temptation.”

I’ve driven through Lancaster County—the heart of PA Amish Country—many times, and I never noticed the absence of rubber wheels on the rare passing tractor amidst the many more horse-and-buggy combos on the road. As The Drive’s Lewin Day explains, “a tractor could be seen as a tempting substitute in a world where cars are forbidden. To eliminate this possibility, religious doctrine states that farmers must instead fit steel wheels to their equipment. The hard steel wheels make it more uncomfortable to use a tractor on hard surfaces like roads, and discourage its use for general transportation.” But Day also notes “steel wheels can damage the road surface when tractors are used to haul produce to market. It's caused issues between religious groups and local authorities in the past. Sometimes, it works out. The Groffdale Mennonites of Iowa signed an agreement with Howard County in 2010, setting aside a small fund to cover road damage from their steel wheels. Other times, the issue has ended up in court, such as a 2012 case from Mitchell County, Iowa.” So whether it’s (not) constructing houses in China or (uncomfortably) moving tractors in Iowa, steel is still society’s go-to strength materia—that is, when there are enough non-bankrupt mills to make it. Did I mention that industrial economic lessons are notoriously unsatisfying? —Christian Niedan

A detail shot of major league baseballs prior to a game

Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images

I always thought that sepia-tone patina on baseballs came from some mysterious on-field magic. But, nope, mud.

The Mudball Era

As a baseball fan, I’m often torn between loving that the sport hasn’t really changed in, like, a century, and being endlessly frustrated by players who fetishize tradition, demand the game be played “the right way,” and drain it of any semblance of fun. (Looking at you, Madison Bumgarner.) It’s a delicate line to walk, preserving the spirit of a game while making it appealing to new generations of fans and not alienating players who, rightly or wrongly, have a cultish to routines and superstitions. Which brings us to Jim Bintliff’s buckets of mud. I knew pitchers use all sorts of substances, most illegal per MLB rules, to get a better grip on a ball or make it dance in unpredictable ways. But “mudding a ‘pearl’”—rubbing mud into a fresh-from-the-box baseball in a league-mandated way for a league-mandated amount of time? That was a new one to me. As was that it can’t be any old wet dirt, but goop from a very specific location. “This particular mud,” Dan Barry wrote in the New York Times, “hauled in buckets by one man from a secret spot along a New Jersey riverbank, is singular in its ability to cut the slippery sheen of a new baseball and provide a firm grip for the pitcher hurling it at life-threatening speed toward another human standing just 60 feet and six inches away.”

Before reading Barry’s story, I had no idea that something as innocuous as wet dirt could have such an outsized impact on America’s Pastime. Or that it has played a role in every pitch thrown for decades. Or that one man, Bintliff, is responsible for getting said mud to MLB teams. Or that the business—and tradition—of mudding a pearl dates back to the 1930s, when Deadball Era player-turned-manager Lena Blackburne discovered the magic properties of this very specific Jersey muck. But I shouldn’t have been so surprised. Baseball is built and sustained by countless oddball routines, built up over more than a century as players and teams try to get a competitive upper hand and the league tries to create a streamlined, consistent game. I love this story, not only for making me smarter about a sport I love but for Barry’s fine storytelling. At the start he breaks down how Bintliff harvests and treats the mud over a four-week period to get it right (“It ages like a fine wine,” he tells Barry); near the end is a poetic description of how team personnel (are supposed to) rub the mud into the 144-180 baseballs prepped for each game. “The simple act is surprisingly solemn, as if the integrity of the national pastime depended on communion between a ball made in Costa Rica and mud shoveled from a Jersey river,” Barry writes. It’s a magnificent piece of writing that reminds us, even in this era of advanced metrics and big data, it’s the small stuff that makes baseball baseball. —Dante A. Ciampaglia