Resolutions

I resolve not to lend my comb to a Labradoodle again.

Since I find the French word amusing, I resolve to use pamplemousse more often.

I resolve to try meditation even though it may give me inner peace.

Even if I do it at the lowest speed, I resolve to never again run the blender with the top off even just to make graham cracker crumbs.

I resolve not to lie more than three—ok, seven—times a day.

I resolve to do something nice for someone else every day. Ok, every week.

I resolve not to be (less) annoyed by vegans.

I resolve to accept that I will not get down to the weight I want.

I resolve to smile more.

I resolve to be less of a wiseass. (Oops. That conflicts with above.)

I resolve to learn the words to the second stanza of The Star-Spangled Banner.

I resolve never to sing the second stanza of The Star-Spangled Banner.

I resolve to produce less polluting waste.

I resolve not to learn how to play mah-jongg. (Sorry, spouse.)

I resolve to make fewer typographicul errorrs.

I resolve to at least in some small way make our politics better.

I resolve to have an open mind about religion.

I resolve to figure out why that when I resolve something I have not made a resolvolution.

I resolve to remember the words of Benjamin Disraeli in Sybil or the Two Nations: “To be conscious you are ignorant is a great step to knowledge.”

I resolve to remember the words of Anne Morrow Lindbergh in A Gift from the Sea: “The most exhausting thing in life, I have discovered, is being insincere.”

I resolve to deepen my sense of wonder.

Snippets

The decision to be unvaccinated is not just an exercise of personal autonomy or religious beliefs, but one that affects general society by unnecessarily increasing the spread of COVID. We should have vaccine mandates. How, then, should I react when I read something like this, as I did last week? “State Senator Doug Ericksen, a Republican who led efforts to oppose Washington State’s Covid-19 emergency orders and vaccine mandates, has died after his own battle with the illness. He was 52.”

Conservatives point out that Biden’s disapproval numbers are higher than his approval ones. These statistics are cited gleefully with the suggestions that Biden is not truly accepted as president, that he could not be elected again, or that somehow he is not the legitimate president. However, Trump’s approval-disapproval poll numbers were almost always worse than Biden’s are now. And yet the majority of Republicans think that somehow Trump was elected in 2020 and should be elected again.

After watching The Power of the Dog,I have been wondering what friends call Benedict Cumberbatch. Benedict seems mighty formal for pals, but he is British so maybe that is it. Ben seems possible. I don’t want it to be Bennie. That seems too disrespectful. Perhaps BC, but I really hope it is Batch. “How you doin’, Batch?” Nice ring.

“It’s a hard winter, when one wolf eats another.” Old Russian Proverb. Ben Mezrich, Once Upon a Time in Russia: The Rise of the Oligarchs—A True Story of Ambition, Wealth, Betrayal, and Murder.

How are the food serving sizes determined that appear on package labels? The recently purchased, but quickly discarded, snack imported from Korea contains only Korean writing except for the “Nutrition Facts,” where I learned that it contained 1.7 servings. What are you supposed to do with a point seven serving? (The product was quickly discarded because it had a pasted-on label warning me that eating the contents could expose me “to chemicals including Acrylamide, which is are [sic] known to the State of California to cause cancer and birth defects or other reproductive harm.” This, too, mystified me because the ingredients section of the nutrition label said it contained only corn, sugar, and baking soda. But better safe than sorry—and the handful I ate was not very good.)

Henry has been coming around to clean up the debris around the front of our urban house for maybe twenty years. He does other odd jobs around the neighborhood and at his church which is nearby. Henry is old now and has difficulty walking, but he stops by every now and again to say hello and maybe to get a little money for old time’s sake. I thought he might be stopping by around Christmastime so I saved for him the Christmas card that we received from the White House. Now. I have no idea why we received a Christmas card from the White House. We gave some money to the Democratic Party, but certainly not enough to warrant a White House missive. Nevertheless, there it was–a beautiful rendering of the White House on the front and signed inside by Joe and Jill with the signatures looking realer than real. Henry showed up the Sunday after Christmas, driven over from his church by one of his friends. I showed him the card, and while I ducked inside to retrieve a few dollars, he looked it over. When I returned to the door, he handed me the card, and I said, No, it was for him to keep. He looked as though I had just handed him a check for a thousand dollars. It was as if I had anointed him with greatness. I said that I didn’t know why we’d gotten the card, we must have received it because we gave some money to the Democratic Party. Henry said solemnly, “And he was grateful for that.” It was clear that the card was worth a great deal more than the money I gave him. After Henry got back into the car, he and the driver sat for maybe five minutes as, I’m sure, Henry showed his friend the touch of wonder that he held in his hands. I wish Joe had sent him a Christmas card. It would have meant the world to him. (Guest snippet from the spouse.)

First Sentences

“He could see it now: they were a little mad, the Booths, though each in a different way.” David Stacton, The Judges of the Secret Court: A Novel about John Wilkes Booth.

“When Elizabeth Blackwell decided to become the first woman doctor, in many ways she wasn’t actually the first.” Olivia Campbell, Women in White Coats: How the First Women Doctors Changed the World of Medicine.

“Lexa McCaskill ran both hands through her coppery hair, adding up appetites.” Ivan Doig, Mountain Time.

“The adventure that changed the course of George Bird Grinnell’s life began with a train, and the path of the train, as it crossed the plains in the summer of 1870, was blocked by buffalo.” Michael Punke, Last Stand: George Bird Grinnell, the Battle to Save the Buffalo, and the Birth of the New West.

“One hot spring evening, just as the sun was going down, two men appeared at Patriarch’s Ponds.” Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita.

“Her sister’s drawing room was already crowded when Marie-Madeline Fourcade arrived.” Lynne Olson, Madame Fourcade’s Secret War: The Daring Young Woman Who Led France’s Largest Spy Network Against Hitler.

“In early spring, everything had been so different.” Serena Kent, Death in Provence.

“At seventy-three, with his wartime career as president of the Naval Consulting Board behind him, Edison tried to make sense of a new intellectual order that challenged everything he had learned of Newtonian theory.” Edmund Morris, Edison.

“Some years ago, on a sunny Friday in early May, still vivid to crime buffs, a bold new age commenced, or the visible part of it anyway, when Romo Malbonum, the Deckled Don, talked himself into a life sentence to be served in a maximum-security federal prison.” Jethro K. Lieberman, Everything is Jake.

“For sixty-five days, the Mayflower had blundered her way through storms and headwinds, her bottom a shaggy pelt of seaweed and barnacles, her leaky decks spewing salt water onto her passengers’ devoted heads.” Nathaniel Philbrick, In the Heart of the Sea.

“The Pacific is the loneliest of oceans, and travelers across that rolling desert begin to feel that their ship is lost in an eternity of sky.” Earl Derr Biggers, The Black Camel.

“At the slow beat of approaching rotor blades, black birds rose into the sky, scattering over the frozen meadows and the pearly knots of creeks and ponds facing the Pripyat Basin.” Adam Higginbotham, Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster.

The White Christmas

A white Christmas for me growing up was not simply that snow had blanketed the ground by Christmas, but that it actually snowed on Christmas. By either definition, I don’t remember many white Christmases. It was often bleak and cold on December 25th in our part of Wisconsin, but at least in my memory the snow, or at least the snow that did not melt away, came later in the season. And since winters did not depart Wisconsin easily, I saw more Easters with snow on the ground than Christmases. In the shadows behind the garage that the sun never reached, there could still be pockets of snow in May.

But there was one Christmas Eve…

Christmas day was largely for playing with new presents and ended with a boring family get-together at Aunt Hazel’s house. I remember little about it other than that the sister and Cousin Margaret lit into the olives at the first opportunity. Instead, as it is for many Germanic and Germanic-descended people, our main focus for the Christmas celebration was not Christmas Day but on Christmas Eve.

By Christmas Eve, the tree would have been up for a week or so. The buying and mounting of the tree were always a difficult process. Now all the Christmas trees I see for sale seem to be nearly perfect—symmetrical with needle-laden branches everywhere and a straight trunk. Not so back then. Finding an acceptable one without too many flaws was always a difficult and time-consuming task, and when it was brought home, much discussion would ensue about which portion of the tree should face the wall to hide the most defects and whether the tree stood as perpendicular to the floor as the often-wavering trunk allowed. Rarely did the family agree on the accepted solution. But the tree was up and decorated well before Christmas Eve.

We opened our presents on Christmas Eve. Nothing was placed under the tree (except for a toy train and a miniature village) before then. I remember that we (I was the youngest of three) were sent to our rooms for a bit. Then there was a “Ho! Ho! Ho!”– now I wonder if that could have been the father—followed by a cry, “Santa’s been here!” One year the family ran to the kitchen window overlooking our backyard. Pointing to a deep, starry sky, one of the parents shouted, “There he goes!” My sister, the eldest, said, “I see him.” (Was this the only time she lied to me?) I looked and looked, but I saw no sleigh, no reindeer, no Santa. I had missed him yet again.

Before the presents were opened, however, we went to a Christmas Eve service at the church. This churchgoing was highly unusual because both parents attended. As far as I can remember, this was the only time of the year my father went, and my mother, at most, went only a few other times a year. (My father drove us kids to Sunday school and then picked us up afterwards. In between he went somewhere else.)

And then one year it happened. We walked into church on this crisp winter night. Even though I can’t sing one note on tune, I have always liked Christmas carols, and, unlike on many Sundays, I enjoyed this service. The last carol was “Silent Night,” then my favorite, and it always gave me a peaceful feeling. We left the church, and there it was: A blanket of snow. During the hour of the service, an inch or two had fallen, and the church steps, the sidewalk, the lawns, the road were all white. The snow was continuing, but it was not so much falling as floating. It was the kind of snow that compelled you to catch some on your tongue. The snow almost hung in front of the streetlamps causing a light that seemed otherworldly. Every pine tree looked like a Christmas tree. It was a white Christmas the way I had imagined a white Christmas should be. It seemed the correctly beautiful and peaceful way to welcome the baby Jesus into the world.

Merry Christmas!

Democracy Dies When Elections Don’t Matter (concluded)

Gerrymandering harms democracy by making votes unequal. The North Carolina electorate splits roughly equally between Republicans and Democrats. Thus, the democratic result should be that the fourteen representatives that the state sends to Congress should be equally divided between the parties. North Carolina, however, has been severely gerrymandered, and ten of the representatives have been Republicans. Therefore, half the people elect 70% of the representatives and their votes count more than those of the other half. Of course, gerrymandering has been with us from the inception of the republic, but today, with modern tools of data collection and analyses, rigging districts is easier and more exacting. The partisan goal is to make as many “safe” districts for a party on the electoral map as possible and to undercut the democratic notion that the voting majority should control.

Legal remedies for changing this are weak or nonexistent.  Gerrymandered state legislatures draw lines so that one party will have more state representatives than warranted by the statewide popular vote. To change this, the other party has to get more than a majority that it would need to remove a disfavored governor. Instead, the lesser party must not only retain its majority in the minority of districts where it now wins, but also get majorities in the districts that are stacked against them because of gerrymandering. The disfavored party will in reality need a supermajority of votes to get the governmental reins while the party that gerrymandered can retrain control with a minority of the vote.

The United States confronted a similar situation in the second half of the twentieth century. At that time some states did not require periodic redistricting of their state legislature. With population growths and shifts, legislative districts that once may have held equal populations became different in size, but each was still entitled to the same representation in the state capital. In Tennessee, two-thirds of the state representatives were elected by one-third of the state’s voters. One Alabama district had a population of 634,864 and another had 15,000 and each had one state senator. Within each district, votes were equal, but when the state was looked at as a whole, votes were unequal, and the electoral process was not about to change that. Representatives from small districts did not willingly give up their disproportionate power.

This only changed because the United States Supreme Court stepped in and adopted what now is called the one person, one vote doctrine. The constitutional guarantee of equal protection, the Court recognized, requires that each vote within a state be equal to all the other votes in the state, and therefore legislative districts would have to have comparable populations.

The recent Supreme Court, however, has viewed partisan gerrymandering differently. Rucho v. Common Cause, decided in 2019, said that “partisan gerrymandering” may be “incompatible with democratic principles.” Even so the 5-4 decision, written by Justice Roberts, said that “partisan gerrymandering claims present political questions beyond the reach of the federal courts.” If gerrymandering is a political question as the Court stated, you might think that there would be a political process to address any problems, but the Court, for the good reason that there is none, did not suggest one. It is as if the umpires turned their backs and walked off the field saying that while it does not seem right, the home team can call balls and strikes. And, thus, the constitutional rights to equal protection and due process do not govern partisan gerrymandering.

Of course, the goal of gerrymandering is not only to make votes unequal, it also seeks to make elections meaningless. Originally gerrymandering was about individuals. Legislative districts were manipulated to have a particular person elected or defeated, but that changed over time to ensure that the member of a particular party, no matter who the individual candidate was, would win the seat. In a successfully gerrymandered district, the election is not about voter turnout, issues, or even personalities. The outcome is set by the district lines that are drawn before the election. The ballots are a mere formality. I see reports of elections from various autocratic countries where the leader gets a ludicrous percentage of the votes, often just short of 100%. The election, of course, is a sham; it is meaningless, and it means that that country is not a democracy. A gerrymandered district in the United States where the election is meaningless is not part of a democracy either.

Friends discount this by telling me that all sides try to draw district lines to their advantage. That has been true, but we should recognize that partisan gerrymandering of the sort we now have does not have ancient roots. Commentators see it starting in the last two decades of the twentieth century. By 2000, 300 of 435 House seats were safe for one party or the other, but now safe seats have increased. News reports in 2020 said that perhaps only fifty seats were truly contested ones, and after the round of gerrymandering that followed the last census that number may be lower.

Reform seems remote. Gerrymandered state legislatures are unlikely to ungerrymander themselves, which gives the incentive for gerrymandering elsewhere. If a surfeit of Republicans is produced in one state, a Democratic state quite naturally seeks to gerrymander its bailiwick for balance. State courts are the only possibility of reform, but not all, if any, state courts will address the undemocratic process,* and uneven reform may merely yield additional power to the political party that will still be able to gerrymander in other places.**

Finally, there is another potential challenge to our democracy, which could be the most devastating one. Right now, gerrymandering undercuts democracy, but it does not affect the presidential vote or statewide elections such as that for governor. Of course, it matters if voters do not have equal access for these non-gerrymandered elections, but the balloting still matters. However, we now have movements to change the vote counting and certification processes with the suggestions that the new officials will have the power to overturn elections when they don’t like the outcomes. We have the potential that no election will matter in the future.

And then democracy will not just be waning or under attack; it will be dead.***

_________________________________________________________________

*Civics courses have taught that the lower houses of the national and state legislatures are the most democratic and representative of our governmental institutions because the fewest number of voters select these representatives in frequent elections. With gerrymandering, however, these bodies have become unrepresentative of the people. The civics courses have often concluded that the courts are the least democratic of our institutions since they are the most removed from the electorate. But when state supreme court judges are elected in non-gerrymandered statewide election, the state supreme courts may be more democratic than the legislatures.

**Gerrymandering has harmed government also by increasing uncompromising partisanship. In a safe district, a candidate does not have to appeal to the other side or even to the center to get elected. The candidate merely must win the party’s primary. The candidate does not ever have to appeal to the majority of the electorate, but only to the partisans voting in the primary. And when elected, members from gerrymandering district can indulge their partisan ideology without political retribution. We become a more divided country as a result.

***It was funny, and ludicrous, when Pat Paulsen, the comedian a generation or so ago, who “ran” for President, said, “I want to be elected by the people, for the people, and in spite of the people.” We now live in a world where “in spite of the people” is a dominant political strategy.

Democracy Dies When Elections Don’t Matter (continued)

We might not know what we mean by democracy, but we Americans have often felt that our democratic system was under attack. For most of the twentieth century, we found our enemies abroad, or with “foreigners” within our land or with those who had adopted “foreign” ideologies, from communist countries or elsewhere. We had to be especially vigilant against these subversives because they did not operate openly, and their secret cells had to be ruthlessly rooted out lest they spread.

Today, however, the enemies of democracy are different. They are not hidden but public officials and local, state, and national leaders, with their secret sides, but also operating openly. This apparent openness may make us less vigilant concerning the dangers they present to democracy. We are often more concerned about what we fear is in the shadows than what is in front of our eyes. Because our vigilance may lessen when the threats to democracy come from public officials, the menace may in fact be greater.

 The dangers to our democracy are many, but they fall into several categories. The last presidential election had record voter turnouts. That should produce huzzahs for the strength of our democracy. Instead, it has spurred efforts to make it harder to vote, or at least harder for some people to vote. One segment of Americans wants fewer “other” Americans to cast ballots. Of course, when voting is not equally accessible for all, democracy is subverted.

Many do not condemn these voting restrictions but instead applaud them citing justifications without factual bases. Perhaps this acceptance comes easily because similar subversions of the electoral process have been part of the American way for much of our history. Biased literacy tests, poll taxes, and voter intimidation — all part of Jim Crow America that arose after Republicans abandoned Reconstruction — had the effect of suppressing votes. Today the motive is not solely racial but also partisan, but the goals of those wanting to make it harder to vote are similar to those of the past.

We should be concerned when voting is not equal for all of the people. Surprisingly, however, these anti-democratic efforts indicate an acceptance of the central democratic principle that elections do matter. These subverters expect that the majority of the ballots cast will determine the outcome, but they want to reduce the votes for the other side so that they will have the majority. As dangerous as these subverters are, they still accept some democratic norms.

Another attack on our democracy, however, has fewer parallels in our history and is less accepting of democratic tenets. In the last year, we have seen many efforts to undermine faith in our elections. Much of this is akin to the whiny schoolyard kid who can’t accept that he lost a game. His cry: I didn’t lose; somebody must have been cheating.

There’s this strange movement afoot that elections should not be trusted unless our side has won. Polls show that a large percentage of Republicans believe that Joe Biden did not win the last presidential election, and it seems clear that there is no evidence that will change their minds. We have a long history of electing loony people to office. In this tradition, perhaps leading the parade, are Republican officials who were elected to office in 2020, but who maintain that while they were validly elected, Trump, on the same ballot, was shafted.

All of this is seeding the ground for the claim that the results of future elections should not be accepted if our side does not win. These claims may come from across the political spectrum. If it loses, that side will say that the anti-democratic efforts to suppress votes made the elections untrustworthy. The other side, if it loses, will say the election can’t trusted because . . . well, just because they lost.

By itself, the claims of steal or illegitimacy attack democracy. We may not like the results of an election, but if we believe in democracy, we accept the results. I did not like it that Trump won in 2016, and I feel that it is a flaw in our electoral structure that the person who got 3 million fewer votes became president. That result highlighted that our country is not a true democracy, but I accepted that under our system that the now Has Been Guy was your president and mine.

Grumbling about an election is the American way, as I did in 2016, and claims of a stealor illegitimacy may just be another version of that. On the other hand, the cries of theft may truly be a democratic danger if they give many a “reason” to resist, legally and otherwise, the lawful outcome of an election.

Whatever the true purpose of Stop-the-Steal movements, it is clear that the goal of gerrymandering is anti-democratic. With “improved” gerrymandering, more and more elections are becoming mere formalities. And with each cut from another meaningless election, democracy bleeds away.*

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*The gerrymander term comes from Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry, who pronounced his last name with a hard G, as if the name were Gary. And in the who-would-have-thought-it department, Ronald Reagan knew that and pronounced gerrymander with a hard G, unlike most people, including me and Supreme Court Justices, who use that term.

(Concluded December 22)

Democracies Die When Elections Don’t Matter

Is our democracy at risk? Many recent discussions have focused on that issue with questions about the meaning of “democracy.” This set me off looking for a definition, but it turns out that the concept is not entirely straightforward. I found not a single definition, but varying ones.

One dictionary said democracy was “government by the people, especially rule of the majority; government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections.” Another source said: “a system of government by the whole population of all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives.” A third source: “the belief in freedom and equality between people, or a system of government based on this belief, in which power is held by elected representatives or directly by the people themselves.”

          These definitions raised all sorts of questions in my mind. Democracy is government by “the people,” but what is the definition of “the people”? Is it the same as “the eligible members of a state”? The whole population cannot vote in an election; Ten-year-olds don’t get to cast a ballot. Isn’t it important to define what the “eligible members of a state” ought to be for a democracy? If the franchise is restricted to a tiny part of the society, but the leaders are picked by majority vote of that small group, is it a democracy? I guess it is, at least according to one definition, but not in my mind.

          One democracy definition emphasized majority rule, but I have heard of the “tyranny of the majority,” and wondered if we would consider a country democratic that horrendously oppressed or denied access to the ballot to all those not in the majority. (“No democracy can long survive which does not accept as fundamental to its very existence the recognition of the rights of minorities.” Franklin D. Roosevelt.) And, if a system selects representatives with a plurality but not a majority, is it not democratic or is it a lesser form of democracy?

          One democracy definition said “free elections.” That is not a self-evident phrase. I was not sure how I would define it, or if it could be defined except by negative examples.

          Even though I felt as if I would know a democracy when I saw it, I was not sure that it could be defined. Part of the problem is that the definitions, like most definitions, were binary—something was either this or not this. Something was not “sort of” this or a “better or more complete version” of that.

          The third definition included a component the others did not when it said a democracy was a system of government based on the belief of equality among people. It seems to me that one facet of a better democracy is that the ability to vote is widespread, indicating equality among the people, and that all voters’ votes count the same, again indicating equality among the people. The elected representatives of the society are then chosen by determining who had the most votes cast in an election where all the voters have equal access to cast ballots and all votes carry equal weight.

          I also noticed an important absence in all the definitions. They had agreed that a representative democracy had the electorate picking people to represent them in government. But the definitions do not say that the people or the electorate choose the form of government in which their representatives will govern. But surely, the structure of the government has something to do with democracy. And “democratic” countries can be structured in ways that seem to make them more or less democratic. The U.S. Constitution contains many non-democratic features which assure that all votes do not have equal weight. One example: Because each state selects two Senators the votes in small states count more in constituting the Senate than votes in large states.

          But even so, I think that most people believe that in a democracy elections matter. We, the People, no matter how we define the People, should be able to change those who represent us through our elections, and therefore voting is important. Of course, that is frequently not true in our country. Our presidential elections are an example.

          I vote in New York, but it is clear long before the voting who will win the presidential race in my state. The result will be the same whether I or ten thousand others vote or not. The election is a mere formality and voting in a New York presidential race does not really matter. Instead, the relative handful of “swing” state voters actually control who will be president. Their votes count a lot more than mine, and a basic principle of democracy is undercut.

But now there are movements to make many more elections mere formalities, and they present basic threats to our democracy.

(continued Dec. 20.)

Snippets

The paper bag from the food shop had printed on it “Established Since 1914.” Does that convey a different message from “Established 1914”?

The movie was labeled PG. The caution was for “rude humor.” I was surprised, for in my experience starting at two years, five months, and four days, kids are inordinately fond of rude humor.

I know that the headline is not really funny, but still: “Volunteer Dies After a Sheep Charges at Her on a Therapy Farm.”

Since assertions without substantiation are now widely accepted, it is time for me to make at least one: Unvaccinated children who get Covid, no matter how mild, run an increased risk of developing later-occurring autism. Please feel free to pass it along.

Did you find the World Chess Championship as heart stoppingly exciting as I did? Were you surprised that the best chess player is Norwegian?

Surely you found the end of the Formula One season extraordinary.

If those two events did not capture your attention, did the win by Miss India captivate you?

Or are you just surprised what some people get passionate about?

“There are still mysteries.” Kevin Young, Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News.

The tornadoes, of course, decimated power poles and lines and left many communities without electricity. And, in a cruel twist, a tornado wiped out a candle factory. Does the Deity have a dark sense of humor?

Covid has made my doctors’ visits better and worse. To have waiting rooms less crowded, appointments seem to be more spread out, and I am seen more promptly now. On the other hand, the waiting room tables are now kept clear, and I don’t get the chance to thumb through eighteen-month-old magazines I don’t otherwise look at.

‘Tis the season: Athletes get athletes foot, but astronauts get missile toe.

It was the night before the twenty-fifth reunion. A group had assembled at a tavern that was a hangout in the years after the high school graduation. Marty went up to the bar. Marty had been a middling student. Marty had been a middling athlete. But Marty had moved high up the executive chain in a local corporation and was a semi-bigwig in the small community. Marty ordered a beer. The bartender turned to get the ordered bottle. Marty put $10 down. But then after the briefest of moments, as the bartender turned to uncap the bottle, Marty looked around to see if anyone was watching, but did not see me. He put his hand over the bill, palmed it, and put it in his pocket. Then somewhat conspicuously he went to his wallet and laid down a $100 bill on the middle of the bar.

Dinner with Mom and Dad (Guest Post from the NBP concluded)

When dinner was over it was usually close to my bedtime and bedtime was the best time of the day! It was the ultimate kid time—catered completely to and for me—with the goal of accomplishing my favorite activity in the universe: sleep! Each of my parents would come in and say goodnight to me in their own special way, but they did it one at a time. I had each one all to myself. Snuggling down into my comfy jammies, I got to listen to stories and songs. For a while there I even got to suck my thumb.[1]

I made my parents wear out copies of many children’s books: Good Night Moon; The Very Hungry Caterpillar; Horton Hears a Who!; Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day (every day for me); The Mitten; Millions of Cats; Amos and Boris (one of my mom’s favorite’s); Where the Wild Things Are; Alexander and the Wind Up Mouse; Frederick; The Six Little Possums and the Babysitter (another of my mom’s faves); Ox-Cart Man; Caps for Sale; The Velveteen Rabbit (William T. Bear hated that one); Beatrix Potter, Dr. Seuss, Shel Silverstein. There was also Roald Dahl and the series featuring George and Martha hippopotami. I was also friendly with Lyle Crocodile, Babar, Corduroy, Frog and Toad, and the Berenstain Bears.[2]

My mom invented her own story series, which she did off the cuff. The main character was Little Green Frog, which, of course, was me, and her best friend was Myrtle the Turtle. They had lots of adventures and ate lily pads for cookies. Little Green Frog’s mom and dad were Mommy Purple Frog and Daddy Purple Frog. I loved those stories and regrettably don’t remember any of them. Mom would let me contribute to the plots, so one night I made my mom kill off Mommy Purple Frog and learned that Little Green Frog would be taken care of by Daddy Purple Frog. The next night Daddy PF instead of Mommy PF made the hit list, and Mommy PF took over. The next night I had her kill off both of them, and there was still a back-up! Aunt Orange Frog took over. So, I killed her off, too, and then I was sent to Grandma Green Frog and so on and so forth until we had run through several branches of the family tree, which seemed to blossom exuberantly, somewhat assuaging my fears of being alone and unadopted. Confusingly, I was never handed off to a reptilian babysitter….…

Little Green Frog stories were usually way cheerier than those death spirals. Also, my mom had magic mom powers, and sometimes, if I were unusually tense, she would rub my back and my head and tell me to calm my breathing. Then she might sing me a song or two or three. Sometimes my dad would take the mic and sing to me (in his own soothing, tone-deaf way). His songs were always super comforting to me, too, and I never wanted them to end.

Bedtime was kid time. Pure and simple. No thinking or action required on my part. It was when my parents came down to my level. These were the times my imagination was let out to pasture (counting sheep that could leap and leap). It was a special time completely designed for me. I remember it with great fondness.


[1] Quitting thumb-sucking is like quitting smoking; One needs to be in the right mind-frame. I became resolved to quit after a visit to the dentist where he told me and my mom that if I didn’t quit, I’d push my two front teeth out so much that I’d need braces or forever look like a beaver. That was the incentive I needed. I quit cold turkey. The worst flashbacks and slip-ups occurred watching Disney’s animated Robin Hood, because the wimpy lion of a Prince John sucks his thumb, and he makes it look soooooooo comforting. I improved on his technique though improvising on my own: when I sucked my thumb I would also curve my index finger around the tip of my nose and pet it. And zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz………

[2] All these books meant so much to me that when I was in college, I went out and rebought the entire collection. Ahem, yes, a certain parent was socially responsible and into educating other children so donated the majority of my childhood stuff as it was deemed too young for me.


On September 1, 2021, the NBP posted “Non-Binary Tennis.” Search Results for “Non-Binary Tennis” – AJ’s Dad (ajsdad.blog). On October 8, AJ posted “Toy Retreat.” Search Results for “Toy Retreat” – AJ’s Dad (ajsdad.blog.)  They are worth reading.

Dinner with Mom and Dad (Guest Post from the NBP)

I was about 6 or 7 at the time. Even at that tender age, life was confusing to me. Excessively shy, I spoke to no one at school. That seemed to be all right with my classmates who couldn’t decide whether I was a boy or a girl…well, neither could I. They mostly ignored me. So, in short, schooldays were a trial. Nighttime, however, was different—sort of.

During the time that I was imprisoned in school, both Mom and Dad were at an apparently wonderful place called “work.” But come early evening, the clang of the front gate and the opening and closing of the front doors heralded the arrival of the evening ritual. A parent, usually my father, would be home.

 Upon return from a hard day’s work in Candy Land, my dad would greet me, say goodnight to the babysitter/housekeeper, and head directly to the kitchen to start dinner, leaving me to blissfully continue watching The Fresh Prince of Bel Air or whatnot, and in “off” mode. Shortly thereafter, the second clanging signaled the return of Mom who called out a hearty “Hello” and retired upstairs to the kitchen for her much-earned post-work “decompression treats”—a Marlborough Light 100 and a cocktail (just like Don Draper!). I was still downstairs watching Willy from Philly but I could hear the talk talk talking begin. They would talk about their day, politics, international debt, the Twizzlers’ quarterly report, I don’t know what.

My parents are smart people. They were both professors. I‘m pretty sure I learned the alphabet from their various degrees and titles—A.B., B.A., J.D., LL.M., M.A., Ph.D., Dr., Esq. My father taught law and my mother taught biology and did neuroimmunological research (whatever that is). But they are also historians, mathematicians, political scientists, social scientists, religious historians, logicians, librarians, and all-around cultural aficionados, who are interested in everything (even the Twizzlers’ supply chain)…and it’s exhausting. They are the epitome of smart in my eyes, and it is harrowing to grow up amidst people of such smartosity (smartosity? Yeah, good word). My parents could and would seemingly talk about any subject in depth, and they were capable of what seemed to me to be astounding logical reasoning, assessment, and analysis. They spoke a different language, a version of English that not even Mr. Rogers spoke. So, the prospect of dinner and its accompanying table conversation was daunting.

Anyway, in the kitchen, as if they needed more nerd juice, they would be joined by The PBS Newshour correspondents MacNeil and Lehrer.[1] In hindsight I’m proud that my family was so non-traditional that my dad would don the apron while my mom would get her Don on, though that was normal for me at the time. Oh boy though, while I was hearing their voices intermingled with MacNeil’s and Lehrer’s, my heartrate started to rise because I knew it was coming… my summons: “Dinner!”

At dinner, while they discoursed on everything from the physics of pinwheels to the philosophies of Plato (not to be confused with Play-Doh), I would play with my food, pretending my broccoli stalks were a bunch of little trees and I was a brontosaurus munching down the forest. Nom! Nom! Nom!

Their gift of gab and their cerebral fusion was advantageous to me because I didn’t have to say much of anything. They could get swept away in their own conversations, ones which always seemed to be in that foreign language and weren’t meant for child consumption anyway: GDP, GOP, GOD, it was all the same to me. At that very tender age, though, I thought I should be able to use the word republican (in a negative, but, of course, very objective way), but I only envisioned that this pelican-dinosaur hybrid had mighty beaks, talons, and a huge wingspan. It was handy for me that my parents gabbed on and on; it left me and my republican free to forage and roam in The Broccoli Forest.

But it was going to happen. There was inevitably going to be that question. It’s such a zinger that I have to screw up my courage even to write it down. Truth to tell, any question to me was disconcerting because the spotlight would turn towards me, and I hated the spotlight.

But the question was going to be asked. Here it comes now…………..

“HOW ARE YOU!?”

DUN DUN DUNNNNNN!

And now I’m yanked out of The Broccoli Forest and shoved into the interrogation chair. 

Oy vey, “How are you?”—this three-worded question completely confounded and dumbfounded me. That I didn’t know how I was, couldn’t even begin to think how I was, made me feel that the most appropriate answer was, “Stupid,” which I didn’t want to admit. So I lied and responded monosyllabically, “Ok,” when what I meant to say was, “I’m a stupid little ball of death today, thank you for asking. Now leave me alone.” But I wasn’t that eloquent (nor polite enough to say thank you) and wouldn’t have been able to muster “little ball of death” at the time because I had no vocabulary for what I felt nor was I assertive enough to request being left alone. I’m not ok, I wasn’t ok, I never was ok, but how could I say that? How could I put that into words? How could I tell my parents?

Instead, when the conversation spotlight rounded on me, it went something like this:

Dad: And how are you doin’, kiddo?

Me: Ok.

Mom: How was school today?

Me: Ok.

Mom: Did anything in particular happen?

Me: Uh uh.

Dad: Did you do any art today?

Me: Uh huh. Draw.
            Dad: What did you draw?

Me: Shapes and colors.

Mom: Do you like dinner tonight?

Me: Eh.

And here’s where I get to show my verbal acuity: “It’s better than stir fry.”

And so forth and so on until my parents gave up.

When I felt that the spotlight was about to shift in my direction, my emotional spikes immediately bristled. As the spotlight dejectedly faded away, those spikes relaxed, and the rest of me went back to playing in The Broccoli Forest.

My parents wanted to know of my wellbeing, and bless their huge hearts, they tried. They wanted to know what happened in school, how my day was, what I was studying, if I had made any friends (ha!)—stuff parents want to know about—but that was information I just couldn’t provide them. I would get angry with my parents for trying to Drano me, unclog me with all these questions to which I had no answer.

Sometimes at the dinner table, feeling overwhelmed, I would blow a fuse…gastrointestinally speaking. I would oftentimes get horrific stomachaches. In those cases, which were not what you’d call rare, I told my parents that my stomach was “stabby,” and then I would get up from my chair and get down on my spot on the Oriental rug underneath the dining room table where I gleefully curled up into a little ball of pain. I’m sure my parents were concerned (I do remember having to actually go to a gastroenterologist), but allowed me this puppy-like behavior recognizing, I guess, that I needed it.

Under the table, in fetal position, I would be oddly content (though in physical pain) listening to my parents’ continuing conversation, and I would be overwhelmingly comforted and feel as safe as I’ve ever felt. Just hearing them, being near them, and having their voices blurring together in the background was of the utmost comfort…when I know I was completely sheltered from the probing question spotlight. That I could just be near my parents and listen to their intonations and the timbre of their voices but not have to actually try and translate what they were saying gave me a feeling of utmost security and downright coziness. I loved my spot on that carpet because it was mindless, and for the most part, my only thoughts were on physical pain, which was much more manageable than mental pain.


[1] Actually, I thought it was just Mr. MacNeil Lehrer, and he was one big brainiac of a guy. He was a major figure in our household—like my parents’ Big Bird.

(Concluded December 13)