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The Dispatch Monthly Mailbag with Andrew Egger
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The Dispatch Monthly Mailbag with Andrew Egger

Andrew answers questions about his beloved St. Louis Cardinals, his alma mater, and how easy it is to play guitar.

Dear Dispatch readers—hello! I’ve enjoyed reading my colleagues’ mailbag newsletters, and I enjoyed reading your questions to me, and then I turned around and realized I’d locked myself into giving you answers. I hate writing about myself—part of the reason I’ve worked for Steve Hayes my whole career so far (other than my appreciation for him as a boss/publication visionary) is my crippling fear of cover letters. Nevertheless, I’ll give this my best shot. Haley started off with work questions last month, but you didn’t have many of those and I’m on vacation right now anyway, so let’s start with what’s top of mind:

Lots of people asked various baseball-related questions—being a Cardinals fan, my thoughts on the new rule changes, and so on—which I’ll quickly distill. (If baseball’s not your thing, feel free to skip ahead.)

I’m typing this on Friday morning, one day after the Cardinals lost a 10-9 heartbreaker of a home opener to the Toronto Blue Jays. It was unsettling to watch in a lot of ways—the pitch clock is bizarre to get used to, I miss watching pitchers hit, and what are we doing playing an American League team on Opening Day anyway? (From Canada!?) But at the end of the day, I was mostly just mad for the good old classic reasons, like terrible strike calls and diabolically unlucky bloop singles and blowing a lead in the top of the ninth, so my hunch is all the new bells and whistles will take less getting used to than I had originally feared. (But I wish they wouldn’t put the pitch clock on-screen.)

John Q. Public asked about last year’s Albert Pujols homecoming: It was magical. I was born in St. Louis, but moved to northwest Iowa for a big chunk of my childhood (my dad was then a parish pastor), so I mostly missed the Mark McGwire era. But we moved back to St. Louis in 2005, which means Pujols was the guy for me for most of my youth. I hated when we lost him, although I didn’t blame him for heading to sunny California (I’d move there!) and was relieved when the Angels footed the bill for his much less productive second decade rather than us. But getting him back at the end—and seeing him turn back the clock in a major way and help carry us to the playoffs? Pure poetry.

I don’t want to belabor the baseball stuff, but in rapid-fire response to Mkapnick: man, the Cardinals starting rotation looks sketchy out the gate, dealing Dylan Carlson to shore it up would probably be a good move (but not as good as trading him last year would have been!), and you’d better believe I’m ready for the Jordan Walker era. Okay, so much for America’s pastime. Let’s do a couple of work questions.

Lots of questions on what Hillsdale College, where I attended, was/is like.

Okay, look, I sort of regret bringing this up, because this is supposed to be a fun and breezy experience for everybody involved. But lots of people ask me about Hillsdale, and I was having a hard time coming up with question suggestions when we kicked this off a few weeks ago, so I went ahead and threw it in, and it’s too late to turn back now!

If you know about Hillsdale, it’s for one of two reasons: You know someone who went there, or you’ve seen the branding. Hillsdale, which otherwise would likely just be a small, right-leaning liberal arts school in Michigan, has enjoyed amazing branding success over the last few decades by selling itself as some sort of Last Bastion of the educational aspirations of the conservative movement. It’s done this in large part by tying itself to various media apparatuses of the Republican Party. As the Republican Party has grown loonier, Hillsdale’s branding has grown loonier in proportion. Earlier this month, only a few days after we sent out the prompt for this mailbag in which I promised to give my Hillsdale steelman, the school hosted talks by two huge COVID antivax charlatans, Robert Kennedy Jr. and Naomi Wolf. Not great! This sort of thing seems to happen a lot.

And yet I and others will attest that brand-conscious marketing isn’t fully representative of the school as a school, which remains—as far as I’ve been able to tell—a really exemplary and wonderful place to get an education. I studied history and journalism at Hillsdale and found it a rigorous and incredibly enriching experience, with curious students and crack professors (shout outs: Matthew Gaetano, John Miller, Nathan Schlueter, Lee Cole, too many others!) and a deep culture of loving each other and the pursuit of learning. Being there was a beautiful time in my life. I met my wife there, in freshman English! And as far as politics is concerned, I came out of Hillsdale much less the knee-jerk reactionary Republican I was when I went in—not in reaction against but because of the education I received there. (Maybe don’t major in politics, though. Bunch of Straussians over in that department. You didn’t hear it from me.)

Aylene Wright asks whether I’d recommend Hillsdale to a person who wasn’t interested in working in Conservatism Inc.; I’d probably respond that I had no plans to do any such thing when I matriculated (I thought I was going to major in music!) and that I’d treasure my education there even if I’d done something else entirely with my life.

Turning the clock back a bit: Riedd525 asks about the “distinctives” of classical education.

I might not be the best person to ask to compare classical education to any other form of teachery; classical education is what I’ve swum in all my life. And classical Christian education in particular: My classical-minded mom started off homeschooling us, then we ended up at a backwater little K-12 St. Louis school called Providence Classical Christian Academy (my graduating class was on the larger end at 10). My wife, although currently on baby hiatus, until recently taught kindergarten at another such school, Immanuel Lutheran School in Alexandria, Virginia.

I don’t have anything negative to say about other forms of education, but it’s always seemed to me an odd idea that a particular child’s education could be truly pluralistic, devoid of all but the broadest ideological presuppositions (knowledge is better than ignorance, cooperation is better than conflict, you’ll need thus-and-such skills to thrive in life). At school as a kid, I always felt like everything I was learning was integrated into a broader unfolding understanding of how a person ought to be, of who I was—an understanding that wasn’t some static received knowledge carved on stone tablets but was deliberately taking place in conversation with what I was given to understand was my cultural heritage as a Christian and an American.

Some people think that education within a particular ideological tradition is tantamount to indoctrination, even brainwashing, good for nothing but perpetuating close-minded or even bigoted systems of belief. I don’t think that’s true. Just the opposite, in fact: It seems to me that the growing hyper-militancy of today’s Republican Party is attributable in large part to the growing ranks of young conservative staffers who have felt as though their beliefs were under siege at basically every stage of their ideological journey and haven’t been able to help adopting a politics of deep reaction as a result.

Aylene, correctly diagnosing that I grew up in a “religious socially conservative bubble,” asks if I experienced any culture shock when I moved to the godless lib hellscape (I’m paraphrasing) that is the D.C. area.

Not much, to be honest! Or not much related to my social conservatism, at any rate; I think lots of people from all walks are sort of taken aback by the unique culture of always-on working and networking and drinking (and drinking and drinking) that is professional D.C.

To me, the biggest distinctive of D.C. isn’t that it’s very liberal (most cities are!). It’s that it’s incredibly transient: Young staffers pop in, live workaholic half-lives for 10 or 15 years, and then most of them pull up stakes to go cash out and start families somewhere else. So the primary shocks are less cultural than economic: When you’re a young single-income family with two babies to squeeze into your home, you’d hope most of your housing competitors would be other similarly situated people, rather than roving bands of yuppie roommates with four income streams to pour into a three-bedroom townhouse.

But we’ve felt very blessed to find real community in D.C.—starting with our church, Immanuel Lutheran, which is an immense anchor to the region for us. And of course, The Dispatch continues to feel more and more like a family too!

JohnM. asks about what it was like starting my career at The Weekly Standard, and whether the writers there rubbed off on me.

The word is surreal: No disrespect to National Review, but I always saw TWS as the beau ideal of semi-fusty conservative mags. They just so happened to be hiring as I graduated from college in 2017, and I jumped at the chance to apply—I actually had sort of a miserable time at both the summer journalism internships I did in college (I won’t name the publications; it wasn’t really their fault!), so I figured if I also hated working at this magazine I actually loved to read, it would be pretty safe to say journalism wasn’t for me and I should go figure out something else.

And then it was great! The place was just lousy with amazing writers; you couldn’t help but learning a lot just by osmosis even if they hadn’t been generous with their time and attention. And they all were: Mike Warren, who was my first direct boss, Jonathan Last, Jim Swift, Mark Hemingway, and Adam Keiper were all great about showing me the ropes, and I couldn’t believe I got to rub elbows with the likes of Andy Ferguson and Matt Labash. If there’s ever been a person I’ve deliberately tried to ape in my work, it’s Ferguson, who for my money is the single best currently doing it, even if his Dylan opinions are worthless.

CatoTheElder disputes my assertion that “anyone can play guitar”: “Yes, technically, anyone can play guitar, much like anyone can take up sculpture, write a history of ancient Greece, brew beer, bake a pie, make coffee, build a house, or climb Everest. It’s just that not everyone can do [whatever] with the same ease, beauty, or grace.”

It’s a fair point, Cato! But I’d submit before the jury that among the many virtues of guitar is that it is among the most forgiving instruments for a beginner with a hankering for cultivating the ease, beauty, and grace in question—these are not merely innate virtues!

I grew up in a house full of music—I’m the oldest of six kids, and all of us sing and play at least one instrument. I took piano lessons from kindergarten and violin from third grade and was in church and school choirs all my life. I don’t at all regret the time I spent developing those skills—and yet I rarely play either of those instruments now. (Can’t fit a piano in my apartment, and violin really needs to be played with others to be really enjoyable.)

What I play is guitar, which I picked up on my own in seventh grade. I’ve never taken lessons and I’m not nearly as good as that as I am the others. But I love guitar because it’s a folk instrument. Most songs—especially most folk songs, written to be sung by pretty much anybody rather than to be recorded by a particular artist in studio—you can play with not all that much practice on a guitar. Many of these songs use just four chords! Many use the same four chords! There’s hurdles—you have to develop calluses and so on—and obviously the skill ceiling is pretty much infinitely high, as it is with any instrument. But you’re not trying to get into Juilliard! You’re just trying to get a little more pleasantness in your life and home! You’re just trying to improve your own personal musicality! You’re just trying to keep the great American songbook alive!

The financial barriers to entry are relatively low, too. Trust me, you don’t want to hear anybody play anything on a $100 violin (let alone a $100 trumpet). But not guitar! My first guitar was an ugly laminate $100 Yamaha. I’m visiting my parents right now and picked it up the other day. Still sounds great! Believe it or not, some styles of music—I’m thinking of Delta blues played with a slide—actually sound better and are easier to play on a cheaper, crappier instrument. Why wait?

Bel asks: Acoustic or electric?

Look, I’m green with envy at anyone who knows their way around an electric guitar. I played in rock bands in college (primarily just as a singer) and have literally never had more fun in my entire life.

I started acoustic for a simple reason: My parents made me. They were sort of alarmed at the middle-school taste for silly post-hardcore music I’d picked up from some friends, so when I started wheedling them to let me buy a guitar they made it clear it’d have to be a steel-string. (I ended up thankful: After a few resentful months mournfully picking through Metallica licks on my new Yamaha, I ended up going off in search of more suitable stuff, stumbled across Bob Dylan, and veered off in a completely new, much more musically fruitful direction.)

There’s all kinds of awesome things you can do with an electric guitar, but for learning the fundamentals—and the low start-up costs—I definitely recommend starting off acoustic. (This calculus perhaps changes if you’ve already got a bassist and a drummer on hand to jam with.)

A few people asked for music recommendations.

I should disclaim there are a lot of different folk music traditions out there and I am unqualified to speak to most of them. So for instance my apologies to Brilliantly Oblivious: my knowledge of Celtic/Irish music doesn’t extend far beyond, like, The Dubliners, the drinking songs I learned at college, and (Lord forgive me) the Flogging Molly phase I had way back when.

The stuff I know is the stuff I’ve been around—starting with the local roots, blues, and bluegrass shows I used to spend my time going to growing up in St. Louis. Many of these were just local acts and a lot of them aren’t still playing, but the best live show I ever saw from a local band was a very heavy blues-rock three-piece called the Hooten Hallers, and they’re opening for The Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band at Jammin’ Java in Vienna, Virginia, next week, if anybody’s interested.

Beyond that I can only say what I like: Old ‘60s folk-movement stuff like early Dylan, Joan Baez, and Dave Van Ronk, bluegrass outfits like the Dillards and the Osborne Brothers, sporadic old-school blues pioneers like Son House and Blind Willie McTell, modern singer-songwriters like Sufjan Stevens, Peter Mulvey, and The Tallest Man on Earth. I also listen to a lot of Radiohead for some reason.

Andrew Egger is a former associate editor for The Dispatch.