People the Barricades! We Need a Pronoun Revolution (concluded)

Until recently I had not paid attention to how often we use binary gendered pronouns, but, of course, they are nearly ubiquitous, and I am now more sensitive to their use. I might be asked, “What is Amelia doing?” My response, if I am being diligent in the way I ought to refer to the NBP (the nonbinary progeny), might be, “AJ is working for a neat nonprofit.” If the conversation continues, however, the conversation sounds stilted if I remain as diligent in respecting AJ as a nonbinary person. “AJ each day helps collect the flowers. AJ is responsible for managing the volunteers. AJ makes sure the bouquets are correctly delivered.”

If you are explaining someone’s work, your conversation would be dotted with binary gendered pronouns. “He balances the books.” “Her boss really seems to value her.” “He often gets aggravated by his job, but he is good at it.” While using gendered male pronouns after indefinite nouns and pronouns may seem technically noninclusive, but are grammatically inclusive, our binary gendered pronouns exclude much of humanity.

I don’t have pronouns to use for my child (and referring to the adult, accomplished AJ with “child” seems demeaning). Perhaps worse, years of conditioning often has me using “her” or “she” when I refer to AJ, and each time I hear such a gendered term leave my mouth, I feel is if I committed a small act of betrayal.

But if I could train myself to eschew the gendered pronouns, what would I say instead? I could just keep repeating “AJ” or replace it with nouns like “the child” or “the offspring” or “the descendant” or, after explaining it, “the NBP,” but all these formulation in ordinary conversation would sound from silly, to pretentious, to nonsensical.

Some nonbinary people state the desire to be referred, pronoun-wise, as they, them, and theirs. That doesn’t work. Not only does it jar on the ear, it often is unclear. “AJ was passing a store with friends. They went in, and they bought a bag of carrots.” If “they” could refer to AJ, did all of them go into the store? Did all of them buy the vegetables? Or was it only AJ? If AJ wanted third-person collective pronouns to refer to AJ, I would try to do it, I guess, but the NBP has indicated that it is not a successful solution, and I agree.

Some other languages offer possibilities with problems of their own. On a trip to Thailand, a guide told me that the Thai language has pronouns for those who are not one of the binary genders. That would be better than what English has, but it is still a limited solution. It is often not apparent that a person is nonbinary. Should a correction be made every time the wrong-gendered pronoun is used for that person? Won’t that stilt conversations and writings?

Chinese offers another path. The spouse worked for decades with a man from mainland China, and he told her that he had trouble with English gendered pronouns because Chinese uses a universal pronoun. She had forgotten the pronoun, so she chatted with our always pleasant and smiling mailman, who is ethnic Chinese. He told her that the universal Chinese pronoun is “ta” as in “tada” and said that it covers he/she/it and him/her/it.

I am little surprised that there is one pronoun for both the objective and subjective cases. It seems as if this would lead to confusion. Last week Evan Osnos, New Yorker reporter and author of the National-Book-Award-winning The Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China (a marvelous book. Go read it.), told me that the universal pronoun did not cause problems in Chinese because that language was about context, and in context ta was almost always clear.

I am not sure that would hold for the English language. Imagine: “Both my son and daughter want the panda, but I bought it for ta.” Of course, with this simple formulation, the ambiguity could be avoided by replacing “ta” with the favored child’s name, but most often we would say “his” or “hers.” My guess is that sometimes the lack of the subjective/objective distinction with a universal pronoun would lead to problems in English. But what problem is there if there were one pronoun for he/she and another for him/hers, say, for example, ta and tans? Wouldn’t the meaning almost always be clear? “AJ ( or a more gendered moniker such as Amelia, Herman, Waldemar, Heidi) works for the Teddy Bear Restoration Company. Ta is good at tans job.”

Is our language really enriched by having gendered pronouns? Or do gendered pronouns make us instinctively think in unnecessarily gendered terms. “Jones has been CEO for a year. She is excellent.” This construct makes us think of the officer as a woman, which only distracts from the message to be conveyed—the person is good at the job.

Perhaps someone could create a new set of pronouns so that the language does not act as if the nonbinaries don’t exist, but so far I haven’t seen anything emerging. I am left in a quandary, but I should be joined in my predicament by all those who value the more precise use of our language.

How do we get better pronouns?

People the Barricades! We Need a Pronoun Revolution

Pronouns were once only a pip pesky. She, her, hers went together. These pronouns all referred to a single person. He, him, and his likewise. They, them, theirs referred to more than one person. “You” presented the only problem since it was both singular and plural. The southernism “y’all” makes some sense.

Pronouns after singular nouns of indeterminate gender, however, do present a problem. Grammarians would say that this sentence is correct: “A writer must work his ass off to make a living.” Of course, women are writers, and the sentence does not seem to include them. Even so, when I first learned this element of grammar, I was told to use “his” in such a sentence because “his” was no longer male in this context but encompassed both genders.

That may be what grammarians taught, but that was not always the instinctive response to the sentence. It takes some mental effort to include females in the collection of people who are writers when “his” is used, while the notion of male writers is an instinctive reaction to the sentence. Of course, the sentence could say, “A writer must work his or her ass off to make a living.” This removes the gendered ambiguity, but a price is paid by producing a clunkier sentence. (And why is it that the phrase is almost always “his or her” and seldom “her or his”? Is it because we are used to males taking precedence?)

The solution for this problem is relatively easy. Make the singular nouns of indeterminate gender plural. “Bakers want their bread to be savored.” “Writers must work their asses off to make a living.” Inclusive, clear, and without thuds.

The similar problem with indefinite pronouns is harder to solve. These include anyone, everyone, no one, none, everybody, someone, each. Grammarians maintain that all indefinite pronouns are singular, and both these sentences are grammatically correct: “Everyone should bring his own beach towel,” and, “Everyone should bring his or her beach towel.” However, “his or hers” brings that inelegance to the injunction, and the universal “his” not only is not inclusive, it introduces an ambiguity. Will towels be provided for the females coming to the clambake?

Many good writers are rejecting the fuddy-duddy grammarians and now follow an indefinite pronoun with a plural pronoun. “No one wants their advice ignored.” “Everybody should bring their own beach towel.” I admit that since I was taught under the old grammatical regime this still grates a bit on my sensibilities, but it is a good solution. When a grammatical rule prevents a better, clearer formulation, the grammatical rule should bend, and our language will improve. And as good writers and speakers increasingly use a plural pronoun after an indefinite one, the jarring note that it produces in a few of us will soon disappear.

However, there is another pronoun problem for which I have not found a good solution. Some pronouns—I, me, you, they, and their companions—are not gendered, but others are—he, she, him, her, and their companions. The gendered pronouns, however, are only binary—male and female. What pronouns, then, should be used for the sizeable portion of the population who are neither male nor female, who are nonbinary?

I have a personal stake in this. The person whom I referred to on this blog as “the daughter” is nonbinary. Although this blog is titled “Amelia’s Dad,” that child is now called AJ (and I need to change the blog’s title, but my limited skills have not so far found how to make the change efficiently to “AJ’s Dad.”)

I wrote a recent post about AJ and me. In it I referred to AJ as the nonbinary progeny and abbreviated that in the post as the NBP. I was trying to be cute, but I also like the ring of NBP partly because it sounds much like MVP. In the post, it was all right to use non-binary progeny and NBP because it was clear to whom (yes, I am part of the declining population who still uses “whom”) I was referring. In ordinary discourse, this does not work. Few of my conversational partners would know that NBP referred to AJ.

(concluded July 1)

It Happened One Night at the Biergarten

Tony later challenged preconceptions that I did not know I had, but I first paid attention to him when he said that he was going to be fifty-nine in a couple of weeks. I found out that his birthday was the same as the spouse’s and a few days after mine. Susan, the woman with him, then talked about astrological signs as if she were a believer.

I learned that she was a designer of burlesque costumes. She showed me pictures that featured beautiful masks but also some remarkable clothing. I said that she should design for professional wrestling, and she said that she would love to: “You know how much they pay for their clothes!” She has had a shop for five years in DUMBO, a trendy and expensive part of Brooklyn, so she must be having some sort of success.

Her twenty-one-year-old son was in college at Oswego, which I knew was part of the State University of New York system, but I did not know where that college was. She was geographically challenged and said something about it being north and west of Syracuse and on a large lake the name of which she did not know. Another patron of the bar said that Oswego was on Lake Ontario, which, I concede, is a large lake. I said that it must be cold up there, and Susan went on for several minutes about the time she visited her son at college in winter. She told me that he had started out majoring in zoology, wanting to be a veterinarian, but was now majoring in business with a minor in zoology.

I asked the soon-to-have-a-birthday-guy what he did. “Relaxing” was the reply. He continued that after twenty-five years, he had just retired from being a subway conductor. He told me that he had roots in Alabama near Mississippi where his father met his mother who was originally from Belize. He said that his daughter had completed college at a downtown Brooklyn institution, but she was still finding herself. She was taking more classes, but he did not say in what.

Tony told the owner that the bartender of several months, Cem (pronounced Gem), was a keeper. I concurred and said that I was surprised when a few weeks ago the thirty-eight-year-old Cem said how much he liked the movie The Best Years of our Lives. I was surprised again when the retired conductor immediately said that Fredric March was a great actor. He continued by saying that he was a big fan of old movies and the stars of yesteryear. We were soon discussing Barbara Stanwyck, Loretta Young, Lucille Ball, Gary Cooper, Spencer Tracy, Glenn Ford, Richard Widmark, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, and many more. Eventually I asked Tony and Susan if it bothered them when they were young and watching old movies, that the films had few Black actors. Both immediately said “Yes.” Tony said there were Black films in the old days and mentioned Ethel Waters and Cabin in the Sky, but said that, of course, although he has a soft spot for Hattie McDaniel, there were almost no Black actors in films intended for the broadest audience. The discussion then naturally turned to the importance and talents of Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte. 

When Tony learned my name, he asked if it was short for Randolph, and I said it was. Then I told him my name was inspired by an old movie star. My mother had told me that she was convinced I was going to be a girl and had not picked a boy’s name. I lay in my bassinet cooing and gurgling (I am sure that I never cried) unnamed for days when my mother spotted a magazine article or ad featuring Randolph Scott. Liking his first name, she gave it to me. (There is no mention of my father in this story.) While Tony knew who Scott was, Susan did not, and in the modern way, pulled up a picture of him on her phone. Damn, he was good looking. I went on to tell them that there were rumors starting in the 1930s that Cary Grant and Randolph Scott who lived together were lovers. Susan seemed shocked by that possibility.

Just before leaving, I asked Tony for his absolute favorite movie from the distant past. He said he could not remember the title (we had both bemoaned the aging phenomenon of having facts on the tips of tongues that won’t emerge), but he said it starred Claudette Colbert as a runaway heiress and Clark Gable as a reporter. I said It Happened One Night, and Tony replied, “That’s it.” And again, Tony surprised me. I would never have guessed when I met this retired conductor that he would have heard of this movie, one of my favorites, too, an all-time great in this critic’s opinion, and one I have watched many times never failing to find it marvelous.

I had no conception when I came into the biergarten that I would talk to a designer of burlesque costumes or that I would meet a retired subway conductor who shared a birthday with the spouse or that I would talk with him about the 1934 movie that was the first, and still one of the few, to win the Academy Awards for best picture, actress, actor, director, and writing. (I have to make it a point if I meet Tony again to discuss the famous hitchhiking scene in It Happened One Night.) And various preconceptions about who might be an aficionado of old movies with Katherine Hepburn or Ann Sothern, Joel McCrea or Jimmy Stewart were definitely challenged. Perhaps this was just a reminder of what I should have already known: people are not always easy to typecast and movies have power in all sorts of ways over all sorts of people.


The NRA recently had its convention. It is held only once a year. Mass shootings occur, however, more than once a week. And other gun crimes and gun suicides occur multiple times each day.

Guns were not allowed in the NRA convention hall when Trump addressed the assemblage. I did not hear any protests that this restriction violated Second Amendment rights.

Some people see gun possession as a God-given right, and a greater percentage of white evangelicals own guns than other demographic groups.

Sometimes people ask what type(s) of firearm(s) Jesus will possess when He comes back to save us. However, I don’t see how he will pass a background check; He was convicted of a felony.

I was taught it was demeaning and wrong to refer to a person as “it.” If so, I am confused how to refer to some people. The Supreme Court has told me that corporations are people with free speech and religious rights. What is the proper pronoun when I am referring to a corporation? Interestingly, the Supreme Court in the Citizens United decision referred to the corporation as an “it.” (I have previously written about pronouns in my post “People the Barricades! We Need a Pronoun Revolution,” June 28 and July 1, 2019.)

A physicist has posited that dark matter was not created in the initial Big Bang, but in another Big Bang a few weeks later. I am sure that there could be lots of questions about this hypothesis, but I wonder how time such as “weeks” was measured during the universe’s infancy.

Shouldn’t Dan Feyer be more well known, which means shouldn’t I have heard of him before this week? Recently he won the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament championship for the ninth time.

At a car rental place in Cancun, a clerk mistook me for a famous “announcer.” I had no idea who she had in mind, but I did not disabuse of her mistake. Perhaps, I thought, it will get me better service. That was my mistake.

If we are to make the rest of America like Florida, we will increase the nation’s infant mortality. Florida ranks in the bottom half of the states when it comes to baby deaths.

Watching a beer ad, I wondered, Why, if you have a good tasting beer, would you put a lime in it?

Phantom of the Opera, Broadway’s longest-running show, recently closed. I live in New York City and go to the theater frequently, but I never saw Phantom. I never saw Cats either. I have not seen Wicked. I have not seen Hamilton on the stage. However, I have seen Topdog/Underdog and Shucked.

New York has forty-one venues classified as Broadway theaters. Only six of them were built after 1927 although many of them have been refurbished over the last century. The peak of Broadway was from 1923-29 with more than two hundred new shows opening every year during that span. Forty-one new shows opened on Broadway from May 2022 through April 2023.

“Tope,” She Exclaimed

I don’t like speed bumps. For most of my car-driving life this was not much of an issue because I encountered few. However, a decade ago, Brooklyn, my home, started putting in speed bumps on some streets I regularly drive. Mostly they signal a school that I am approaching. I understand the concern, but I was not aware that speeding cars had been wiping out schoolchildren in my neighborhood before the bumps were built. They did not seem necessary. However, now, on my way home, I have to slow to eight miles per hour or less and then go back to twenty-five and then back to eight three or four times on the last few blocks of my trip. I realize that this is a minor aggravation except when I am concentrating on a stroller or a bicyclist or the behind of a pedestrian, and don’t see the bump coming. I hit it too fast and fear my head is going to hit the car roof. However, I am restrained by the bruise-leaving, always-worn seat belt as I say various non-Christian oaths. On the other hand, I am grateful that many other blocks I drive do not have speed bumps, and on occasion I get home on a route that would otherwise be less convenient except for the absence of speed bumps.

I have become resigned to the Brooklyn bumps. I felt much yuckier about the Yucatan ones we encountered on a recent trip.

We had flown to Cancun, rented a car, and drove ninety minutes on a good road. We turned off the main highway onto a narrow, meandering street to get to the apartment we had rented on Akumal Bay. Our place was a little over a mile from the turn off, but it seemed much further because of speed bumps. There were many of them. I tried to count them but invariably lost track because of their number—more than two dozen but perhaps thirty or more. The bumps were not all the same. Some were nicely rounded and could be driven over at, say, five miles per hour without any danger of losing fillings. Some were plateaus with an incline, a flat space of several yards, and then an off ramp. Some, however, were not really bumps, but triangles with sharp tops that required extra care and speeds that matched a baby’s crawl.

Before some of the bumps, but not all, a sign was posted on the side of the road—TOPE—which we took to mean “speed bump” in Mexican. We figured that this was a two-syllable word, but the spouse like to pronounce it as if it were that brownish-gray color, that, to me, should have a hint of purple. Her exclamation of “Tope” was sort of cute the first time and even the second and perhaps the third, but we drove this road multiple times each day. Her shouting taupe the thirty-fifth time had lost all cuteness.

The road had a posted speed limit of twelve kilometers per hour, but if that speed was ever reached, the brakes had to be immediately pushed hard for the next speed bump. You could drive the road faster than walking, but only by a bit, and the usual trip the length of our little road took up to fifteen minutes.

This road was not an outlier. Every town where we drove in Yucatan had speed bumps. Even main roads were mined with them. We decided to visit the Mayan ruins at Coba, which we had not seen before. Google maps correctly indicated that it was about a ninety-minute drive, but the mileage (or should it be kilometerage or kilometreage) did not seem that far. Google maps apparently knew of the many, many, did I say many speed bumps we would have to traverse even though almost all of the drive was on main roads.

I wondered if some sort of bizarre corruption was at work. Had some well-connected speed bump construction company “convinced” local officials that this annoyance was necessary? I concluded that if all the speed bumps we encountered on the drive to Coba had been stacked on top of each other, it would make an edifice higher than Coba’s pyramid, a structure that we were told was even higher than the one at Chichen Itza.* If the speed bumps survive, I wonder what future anthropologists will make of them.

On the other hand, I don’t remember seeing any evidence of traffic accidents in our drives.



We toured Coba in a pedicab. The spouse and I sat up front in the vehicle in what was a spacious area for the young but a little tight for us. Rodrigo, who lived in the nearby town of 3,000 also named Coba, narrated as he peddled.

We learned some natural history. Rodrigo pointed out two trees growing together. He said that the bark or sap of one was poisonous and caused a rash, but the bark or the sap on the other one contained the antidote. The two trees always grew side by side. At another tree, Rodrigo pointed out a barely discernible hole with a swarm of small, flying insects. He said the creatures were a native, nonstinging bee. Its honey is harvested by boring into the tree and is a delicacy of the area. 

As can be expected, we heard many different languages and accents at Coba. French predominated, but at the pyramid we met a couple from Bulgaria, who seemed thrilled that we had been to their country, even though it had been for a matter of hours on a trip down the Danube. They took our picture with the pyramid in the background. I fell in love with her, but she has not called me, and my ardor has waned.

Of course, we were primarily there to see Mayan ruins. While Coba’s pyramid may be higher than Chichen Itza’s, it does not now seem as grand because it is in greater disrepair than the more famous site. The stairs have crumbled to pieces. However, I only remember one ball court at Chichen Itza while Coba has two smaller ones that seemed almost intimate.

The Coba feature we had not seen elsewhere was a portion of a raised road. Rodrigo told us that this road originally extended fifty or more miles through the jungle to other Mayan cities. I realize that I was only seeing a small portion of the road, but in spite of my close inspection I saw no speed bumps. On the other hand, the Mayans did not used wheeled vehicles.

However, on the more modern Coba paths used by our pedicab, Rodrigo did have to maneuver over…yep, speed bumps.

We Got the Secret (concluded)

Leaks of classified information can cause harm, but we also need to understand that too much secrecy can damage the country. Secrecy leads to claims of conspiracy that cause distrust of the government. If everything is not disclosed about the investigation into JFK’s death, conspiratorial claims about the assassination proliferate.

And once information has been kept from the public, simply disclosing it does not cure the conspiratorial problem. If the government claims that every bit of stuff about the Roswell incident has now been disclosed, many will not trust that pronouncement. If officials hid something once, why should I trust that they are not hiding something now? Secrecy leads to a distrust of government, and the country is harmed when the government is not trusted.

In a subtle and insidious way government secrecy also tends to corrupt the holder of the secrets. The official with a secret feels powerful. The secret becomes a form of currency, a coin that can be held for ego or prestige purposes—I know more than you do—even if information should be exchanged.

Hiding information presents another danger. Because access to the information is limited, it cannot be analyzed by all those who might have useful insights about it. Our country has had notable intelligence lapses. Our intelligence agencies, for example, were not aware of the imminent collapse of the Soviet Union or of the Iranian Revolution that overthrew the Shah. We cannot know, but it is possible, that the analyses would have been different had more of the classified information been available to academics, businessmen, NGO representatives, and others who knew or had studied Russia and Iran. Sen. Patrick Moynihan believed that the demise of the Soviet Union could have been forecast if the intelligence agencies had kept less information to themselves. Moynihan also maintained that the United States significantly overspent on military budgets because excessive secrecy allowed intelligence agencies to overestimate Soviet military strength.

There is a related danger. Policy makers who have already decided on a course of action can pick and choose classified information to disclose to support their predetermined path. With other information being withheld as secret, the proposed policy cannot be properly examined or challenged. In other words, Hello, Iraq War!

Another aspect of human nature also comes into play. We assume that information that is secret must be especially valuable. Why else would it be secret? Where secrecy predominates, what is not secret is too easily disregarded or dismissed as unimportant.

And, of course, we can never really trust a leak. First, the leaker has some sort of motive for disclosing only this particular information and nothing more. Moreover, there is a natural inclination to make his own additions to the leaked material. Seneca, noting this aspect of human behavior, said, “Nobody will keep the thing he hears to himself, and nobody will repeat just what he hears and no more.”

We hear about leaks when the complainer wants us to assume that the disclosure has endangered the country. We should challenge that assumption. The dangers should not be accepted merely because someone in government says so. And even though making some government information public can be harmful, we should never lose sight of the fact that secrecy regularly harms our nation. We should start from the position that a culture of secrecy is un-American.

Democracy, the functioning of our economy, and the proper operation of our government depend upon open information. Government secrecy, while sometimes necessary, conflicts with that, and we should be having regular conversations about how our secrecy system works and how well it serves us. We should be asking: Who determines what is secret? How is secrecy determined? What are the procedures for determining when the need for secrecy is no longer necessary, and how well do those procedures work? How often are documents declassified? Under what conditions? How often does the unauthorized disclosure of what the government claims should be secret harm our national security?

Marra, the Movies, American History, and Irony (concluded)

          Anthony Marra’s Mercury Pictures Presents is a story of Hollywood—land of illusion and fantasy—interwoven with stories of pre-war and wartime Italy where illusions and fantasies were cruelly squelched. In it Marra exposes myriad ironies about our racial and other policies. It called to mind another book I recently read, East West Street: On the Origins of “Genocide” and “Crimes Against Humanity” by Philippe Sands. One of the topics of this book—part memoir, part history—was whether the international tribunals in Nuremberg after World War II should prosecute Nazis for “crimes against humanity,” that is, the killing of individuals on a large scale, or, as some contended, for the newly coined “genocide,” that is, the extermination of racial and other minorities in order to destroy those races and minorities. (After the war the U.N. said genocide is a crime and that genocide denied the “right of existence of entire human groups.”)

          American prosecutors at Nuremberg, led by Robert Jackson on leave from his position as Justice of the Supreme Court, avoided the use of the term “genocide.” Sands speculates, “Maybe it was the southern senators who got to Jackson and his team, fearful about the implications that the charge of genocide might have in local politics, with the American Indians and the blacks.”

America oppressed Blacks, but it was not genocide. Even though there were many racial killings, the goal was not to wipe out a people; it was to subjugate them so that they could be exploited by other groups. We might label our slavery and Jim Crow laws and practices as crimes against humanity, but whatever we call them, they were certainly criminal.

          American Indians, on the other hand, were decimated as a result of European immigration. To a large extent, this was a byproduct of the diseases the English and others brought, but there were also conscious attempts to rid the land of the Native Americans, especially as the “new” Americans pushed westward. Some of our Indian wars and other policies look like what we think of as genocide. However, Rafael Lemkin who coined the term defined “genocide” as “the destruction of a nation or of an ethnic group.” Even some of the “kindly” efforts towards the Indians by the United States meet this broader definition of genocide. Consider Richard Henry Pratt.

Pratt was a soldier who fought for the North in the Civil War and then served in the West pursuing, fighting, and negotiating with Indians. He was the primary force behind the famous Carlisle Indian school, whose philosophy influenced many other Indian schools established by the federal government. Pratt believed that Indians were deserving of a place in American society and that racial differences were not innate but the product of environmental factors. He believed that Indians could–and should–integrate into mainstream white society, but here was the catch: He thought this was possible only if the Indians abandoned their tribal communities and culture.

          Pratt’s theories required a school away from the native lands. The Carlisle Barracks were an old twenty-seven-acre army installation, but they had been damaged in the Civil War and then abandoned. Pratt talked the Army into allowing him to set up the school in the sixteen buildings that needed renovations. Almost immediately, Pratt constructed a seven-foot fence around the property as both a screen against sightseers—the townsfolk were curious about the young Indians—and to control the students.

          The school separated both boy and girl students from their language. They were only to speak English. Uttering a native language was punished, and students from the same tribes were scattered among separate dormitories.

          The students were also separated from their names, partly because the white teachers could not pronounce Indian names, but also to remove another aspect of their Indianness. As Sally Jenkins put it in The Real All Americans: The Team that Changed a Game, a People, a Nation (2007), when they had new, Americanized names, another “piece of their Indian selves had been taken away.”

          The males were separated from their hair and that, too, separated them from their heritage. Jenkins reports that braids were a symbol of maturity for Lakotas, who only cut their hair when in deep mourning.

          And they were separated from their traditional clothing, often colorful and distinctive. Instead, they all had to dress in drab uniforms, and the students became “an indistinguishable gray mass with no discernible outward differences.”

          The very nature of the school itself, however, separated the students from a fundamental aspect of their heritage. Indian tribes had varied cultural differences, Jacqueline Fear-Segal reports in White Man’s Club: Schools, Race, and the Struggle of Indian Acculturation (2007), but in no Indian community was education a discrete endeavor conducted in a separate institution or by “teachers.” Education was woven into everyday patterns of living and took place informally in daily interactions.

          Although the students were separated from the reservations where their families lived, whites had a similar goal in both places. Out west, the shared lands were broken up into parcels of private ownership, and at Carlisle the Indians were pushed to enter a wage economy. Jenkins notes that the U.S. government did not believe in sharing or communalism; it believed in private property. An Indian needed to be taught out West and at Carlisle “so that he will say ‘I’ instead of ‘We’ and ‘This is mine’ instead of ‘This is ours.’”

The school took an undeniable personal toll on students: it erased their personal histories, sundered families, and obliterated their languages, faiths, and traditions. The goal was not to kill a people, but even so, the goal was to wipe out the Native Americans and replace them with something else.

          America has done many good things. It has done many bad things, too, and sometimes even when it has had good intentions, it has ended up doing bad things. Our history is complicated.

She Introduced Me to Tom Reiss

I told the literary agent how much I had enjoyed a recent book by one of the authors she represents. I should have added that at least four of my friends had also raved about The Bomber Mafia. This was not just cocktail chatter sucking up to an attractive woman. In the past I have also told her that I did not particularly like one of her author’s books. In that case, though, I had to concede that the rest of my history book group (reading yet another book about Lincoln) liked it very much.

The agent and I both have “cottages” in the same summer community. I first became aware of her a decade ago when she was instrumental in bringing Tom Reiss to the community to talk about his then-recent book, The Black Count: Glory, Revolution and the Real Count of Monte Cristo. I have told the agent that I admire that biography of Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, who was the son of a French nobleman and a Haitian slave and who was the father of Alexandre Dumas, author of the Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers. Reiss not only presented a fascinating portrait of this biracial man who became a French general during the French Revolution and the Napoleonic era, he taught me a lot about the French and Haitian racial relationships. The Pulitzer Prize the book garnered was deserved.

After Reiss talked, I went to have my copy signed and mentioned something that was in the acknowledgements—I think it was a comment about his mother. He seemed genuinely surprised that anyone had read that section of the book. I felt a bit embarrassed to say that I was OCD enough to always at least skim the acknowledgements to see if I recognized any names. The author wrote a nice inscription, which included a comment about my thorough reading, and signed with a legible signature.

Sadly, I no longer have the book. A young woman who was pulling beers at my local Brooklyn biergarten was named Dumas, with the “s” pronounced. I gave her the book telling her she could learn about her ancestors. On the other hand, I was quite confident that the family of this Ivy League graduate from upper crust Charleston society was unlikely to have a biracial identity. Shortly afterwards, my barkeep Dumas moved on, and I never saw her or the book again. But I digress.

At this recent cocktail party, I asked the agent if she had book recommendations. She said that I might like an earlier book by Tom Reiss, The Orientalist: Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life. I had never heard of this biography but set out to read it. Instead of having my local bookstore get it for me, I borrowed it as an e-book from the New York Public Library. (I felt a little guilty about that. I don’t know how these things work, but I assume there are no royalties for the author or his agent when I download a book from the library.)

The Orientalist is a biography of Lev Nussimbaum, but in the book Reiss also recounts his own search to discover the facts of his subject’s life. During his research, Reiss encountered a coterie of colorful characters, often of suspect veracity. Even after Reiss’s extensive research (its copiousness astounded me), much about Nussimbaum remains murky or disputed. However, it does seem clear that Lev was born in 1905 to a Jewish family and was raised in Baku, Azerbaijan, by an oil-rich father after his mother committed suicide when Lev was five. Father and son fled Baku permanently when the Soviet Union annexed Azerbaijan in 1920.

Nussimbaum, who died in Italy at age 36 during WWII, claims to have converted to Islam (the where, when, and even the if of that is disputed). Nevertheless, he is known to have adopted the persona of a Muslim prince and wrote a truly amazing number of books and articles about a wide range of topics under the name of Essad Bey. Many of the books were best sellers. (The accuracy of much of what he wrote is now disputed.) These books are mostly forgotten, but Nussimbaum still fascinates because, according to Reiss, he wrote (under the pseudonym Kurban Said) what is considered a classic of world literature, the novel Ali and Nino. The authorship of the novel is disputed in some circles, but I thought Reiss was convincing in concluding that Kurban Said was Essad Bey who was Lev Nussimbaum.

I learned much from Reiss’s book. I had known little about the world in and around Baku in the aftermath of World War I.  

The Orientalist also reminded me why I have not become the book writer I thought I wanted to be. I am the author or co-author of several books about the law.  A commonality in those books was that I was asked to do them—by a university press, by a co-author, or by an organization. There were other books that I thought I could write if only someone had asked me to write them. Alas, that is not how book publishing works. I did not care enough about any of the topics to drive me to do the months or years of work to put a book proposal together in hopes that a publisher would find it of interest. Such a proposal requires extensive research and a precis of the completed work. The agent told me that a good part of her job was helping the author to shape such a  proposal, which may be forty pages long. The agent also told me that a writer has to be obsessed to do this, and it was clear that Tom Reiss had been obsessed about finding every possible nugget of information about Lev Nussimbaum. I have never had a comparable obsession, and thus, while I have written many law review articles that I knew I could get published, the book portion of the CV is scanty. (However, one of my books still appears to be in print. You could buy it and swell my royalties, which sometimes break the three-figure level in a year.)

Reiss’s book, however, also gave me the pleasure of discovering Ali and Nino, which I again got as a New York Public Library e-book, this time without any guilt since I knew no one involved with it. It is a love story of a Moslem man of Persian ancestry and a Georgian Orthodox Christian young woman set in Baku in the waning days of World War I and its aftermath. There are good reasons for its being regarded as a classic. It was marvelous.

The agent also suggested that I might like a new book by an author she represents, Dahlia Lithwick’s Lady Justice: Women, the Law, and the Battle to Save America. I bought a copy from my local bookstore, but for now I don’t feel like writing about it. It left me depressed.


It was an incongruous sight: A Bentley convertible in a Walmart parking lot.

I was used to the ratings warnings on streaming shows but was surprised when I saw for the first time in addition to the usual Language, Violence, Sexual Situations, and Nudity, the inclusion of Smoking. I am wondering if someday the caution notice will also include Fast Food.

I was telling my friend about the live music I had heard at a jazz venue and said that one of the good things about the room is that people came to hear the performers and were respectfully quiet during the performance. He told me that had not been the case for him a while back when he went to a famous cabaret to hear Jack Jones. And I said to him, “Jack Jones! You are old.” However, I understood his reference. The next time we lunch, I expect him to tell me about Jerry Vale, but I won’t believe him if he tells me about seeing Russ Columbo.

“I believe that marriage is between a man and a woman and that’s how God created it.” Many conservatives against same sex marriages have been saying something similar to that pronouncement, but they leave out any Bible references that condemn divorce. We do know that the chief pretender to conservatism has been divorced more than once and is an adulterer. How many other conservatives have been divorced? How many of these religious conservatives would overturn our divorce laws?

There are many times that I want to say to someone, “I bow to your superior sciolism.” But what’s the point?

I have been “authoritatively” told by several friends that those who run our weekly farmers market can’t be Amish because they come in the produce-carrying truck driven by a non-Amish person. Perhaps, these “knowledgeable” people continue, they are Mennonites but definitely not Amish because Amish can’t ride in a motor vehicle. I told my Amish friend Amos who helps run the market about these conversations. For one of the few times since I have met him, he was speechless with open-mouthed bewilderment. I said, “I don’t know much about you guys, but many know even less.” He nodded

I asked when he rode in the truck whether he listened to the radio. Amos said that they were not supposed to, but then he paused, smiled, and said, “We leave it up to the driver.” I asked if he plugged his ears if the radio played, and Annie, his sister, laughed.

Annie is getting married in a month. I found out that my local drug store did not have many appropriate cards for an Amish bride.

A cultural anthropologist told me that at a funeral in some countries the mourners want to know what the deceased had done; in others, how they did it. In America, they want to know how much money was left to the heirs.

I have been worrying recently that if I go to hell, I will have to hear eternally a high school marching band playing a Captain and Tennille song, or even worse, Kars for Kids.


With age comes knowledge. When I was young, I had no idea how hard it was to cut a toenail when old.

A friend told me that he knows a married couple who are just two minds without a single thought.

Brittney Griner was given a harsh sentence for bringing less than a gram of cannabis oil into Russia. This result certainly seems to be the equivalent of hostage-taking and has caused many Americans great concern, as it should. But perhaps we should also be asking about the many people in the United States who are imprisoned by our overly harsh drug laws and enforcement.

Much has been made of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán denouncing race-mixing. I wondered what he meant by “race” and read the speech in Hungary where he made his pronouncement. Apparently by “race” he means “European,” although he also states that the “time will come when we have to somehow accept Christians from [outside Europe] and integrate them into our lives.” However, race has never had a fixed meaning and has been used for all sorts of groups that might now be defined by ethnicity. For example, not only Jews but the Irish and Italians were once seen as distinct races. Orbán seems especially concerned about immigration from Arab countries, but I wonder what his reaction would be if there was a widespread movement of Irish people to Hungary. Would he be accepting? In any event, it is surprising that he and Hungary are now a centerpiece for conservatives. Hungary has universal healthcare, and I have not seen anything that suggests Orbán would get rid of that. Hungary permits abortions, and I have not seen anything that suggests Orbán would get rid of that.

“The highest function of conservatism is to keep what progressiveness has accomplished.” R. H. Fulton.

I doubt that this story about Herschel Walker is true. When he was at the University of Georgia, Walker had to pass chemistry to be eligible to play football. After much discussion among faculty, administration, and, of course, wealthy alumni, it was decided that Herschel would pass if got fifty percent on a special oral exam. It had two questions. He was asked, “What is the color of blue vitriol acid?” He said, “Pink,” and that was wrong. He was then asked if he knew how to make sulfuric acid, and he said, “No.” That was right, so he was able to play football.

“Politics is perhaps the only profession for which no preparation is thought necessary.” Robert Louis Stevenson

Perhaps the most frightening thing about Josh Hawley is that, by comparison, he makes Ted Cruz seem almost reasonable.

An astute observer said, “When a politician has not time to bother with digging up the facts, he can always get up and discuss great moral issues.”