Stranger Things…about me?

Let us start with the easy one.

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But first, if you have not watched—and still plan to watch—all 25 episodes of the gobsmackingly-excellent Stranger Things, then I strongly advise you not to read further until after you have done so.

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In Episode 2 of Season 2, “Trick or Treat, Freak”, Nancy Wheeler (Natalia Dyer) invites Jonathan Byers (Charlie Heaton) to come to “Tina’s party” on Halloween with her and her boyfriend Steve Harrington (Joe Keery). The introverted Jonathan demurs, noting he has to keep an eye on his younger brother Will (Noah Schnapp) while he trick-or-treats with his friends.

Nancy, brushing past this transparent deflection, notes he would still be home fairly early in the evening, at which point he will simply “read Kurt Vonnegut while listening to the Talking Heads.” Jonathan ultimately attends the party, allowing him to be on site to drive a very drunk Nancy home after she effectively dumps Steve and sets a new record for use of the word “bullshit.”

The episode takes place over the last days of October 1984, when I was a freshman at Yale. This makes me one year older than Steve, two years older than Nancy and Jonathan, and five years older than Will and his friends; I am roughly Jonathan’s age. And it was in the spring and summer of 1984 that I read the only three Vonnegut novels I have ever read: Breakfast of Champions, Cat’s Cradle and Deadeye Dick. Moreover, back then I listened to a lot of Talking Heads—there is no “the”—even seeing them live in the summers of 1983 and 1984. That July, when I created a two-cassette mixcalled “Interstate Survival,” two Talking Heads tracks made the cut: “Take Me to the River” and “Stay Hungry” (one of my 25 favorite tracks of all time), both from the excellent More Songs About Buildings and Food album. That November, I created another two-cassette mix called “Paxton Mix,” the last name of my then-girlfriend. Making the cut were not only the two aforementioned Talking Heads tracks, but also the live version of “Once in a Lifetime” from the recently released Stop Making Sense soundtrack, “I Get Wild/Wild Gravity” from Speaking in Tongues and “Artists Only,” the latter also from More Songs.

So, when Nancy told Jonathan he would just “read Kurt Vonnegut and listen to the Talking Heads,” she could easily have been talking to me. And while this is the most obvious way in which I strongly identify with some aspect of Stranger Things, it is not the most important.

Not by a long shot.

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I previously noted my contrarian resistance to watching, reading or listening to something simply because it is popular. I prefer to discover cultural works for myself—though I must admit the only reason I started reading Vonnegut is because my closest friend at the time suggested it.

This is why I did not watch any episodes of Stranger Things until this past October, My wife Nell and I started watching the show almost on a lark—but we were permanently hooked once the cold open of Episode 1 of Season 1, “The Disappearance of Will Byers” faded into the now-iconic theme music. And over the next five or six weekends—weeknights are reserved for MSNBC—we eagerly watched all 25 episodes.

Nell and I reveled in the show’s obvious literary and cinematic homages, most notably Stephen King[1] and Steven Spielberg—the first season is basically E.T. the Terrestrial meets Firestarter; it is merely a coincidence both films star Drew Barrymore. We spent Season 2 debating whether to trust Paul Reiser’s Dr. Sam Owens, the new director of Hawkins Lab. Nell had seen him in Aliens, a clear influence on the season, so she did not trust him at all; I have not seen Aliens. His redemptive arc is a season highlight; Nell conceded I had been right—or, at least, lucky.

Bringing my own cultural influences to our viewing, I detected the perhaps-unconscious influence of David Lynch, particularly in the pulses of electricity and flashing lights which signal the presence of the show’s various monsters from the “Upside Down.” The scene in Episode 6 of Season 3, “E Pluribus Unum,” when first Jim Hopper (David Harbour) then Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder) try to call Dr. Owens, only to reach a man sitting in front of four yellow telephones who answers “Philadelphia Public Library” could have come from Mulholland Drive, while in Twin Peaks, Special Agent Dale Cooper and three fellow agents work out of the Philadelphia office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

After watching all 25 episodes—and I am 50/50 whether “the American” is Hopper, though I believe he did not die when Joyce blew up “The Key”—we debated whether to let our almost-10 and almost-12 daughters—watch the series. The show’s youngest characters—Eleven (“El,” Millie Bobby Brown), Will, Mike Wheeler (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin Henderson (Gaten Matarazzo), Lucas Sinclair (Caleb McLaughlin) and, as of Season 2, Maxine “Max” Mayfield (Sadie Sink)—are 12 years old at the start of the series, which takes place in November 1983. This helped us to decide they could at least watch the first two seasons, which are not nearly as over-the-top gory and, frankly, ridiculous as Season 3; I agree with Jonathan when he asks Nancy, “What part of any of this makes sense?”[2] Or with Steve’s perplexed look as he confirms the giant fleshy spider thing that wants to kill El is a machine made not from metal and screws, but from melted people.[3]

We feel your pain, Steve.

To be fair, a moment early in Season 3 cautions viewers not to take the season too seriously. Early in Episode 1, “Suzie, Do You Copy?”, Steve, now working at Scoops Ahoy in the new Starcourt Mall, lets Will, Mike, Lucas and Max sneak into the mall’s movie theater to watch Day of the Dead, which is a pure “popcorn movie.”

Actually, Season 3 is not so much bad as it is analogous to an album with one or two truly incredible tracks and a lot of mediocre, or worse, filler. If Seasons 1 and 2 are The Cars and Candy-O, then Season 3 is Panorama; not bad, but nowhere as absurdly good as the first two albums by The Cars. The incredible tracks are the evolving relationships between the show’s characters[4]—especially the classic boyfriend-girlfriend-BFF triangle that forms between Mike, El, and Max; after all, it is Max that feeds El the immortal words “I dump your ass.”[5]  Our eldest daughter wholeheartedly agrees, as she has just begun to pay attention to boys as BOYS. While both girls fell in love with the show as quickly as Nell and I did, it was the older one, after seeing El and Mike finally attend the Snowball Dance together[6]—then have one of television’s great kisses as they slow-danced—who stood up and did the cookie dance. Which is apparently something she saw on LankyBox.

To be fair, we had literally just watched six episodes in a row, wrapping up Season 2. We all should have gotten up to dance.

This also explains their gifts for the first night of Chanukah. El is supposed to have a blue barrette, but it accidentally got knocked off her head and needs to be glued back on.

Eleven and Mike FunkoPop

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I first started seeing a psychotherapist when I was 11 or 12 years old, after what I laughably call a suicide attempt: I mashed a bunch of random pills into a wooden salad bowl, poured in some grape soda, took one or two tentative sips—and left the bowl for my mother to find while I attended Hebrew School. That lasted a little over one year. Then, during my junior year of high school, a B in trigonometry on semester—among other far more serious things—led me to decide to swallow 32 Contac decongestant pills. After three days of torment in which nothing happened to me physiologically, I broke down and told my mother what I had done. This led to psychotherapy round two, which lasted only a few months. On the evening of January 20, 1989, I was struck by a speeding car as I crossed 16th Street in the Washington, DC neighborhood of Adams Morgan; having just watched the inauguration of President George Herbert Walker Bush, my first thought was “so much for kinder and gentler.” As part of my healing process—and because insurance covered it—I started my third round of psychotherapy; this lasted until I moved to Philadelphia four months later. Finally, for all of the reasons I list in the Introduction to the book I am writing, I started seeing my fourth psychotherapist in the summer of 2016.

A few weeks ago, I did something in therapy I had never done before.

I cried.

I was trying to describe the closing scene of Episode 7 of Season 2, “The Lost Sister,” and I could not get the words out of my mouth.

Just bear with me while I explain. Three episodes earlier, El, while cleaning the cabin she shares in secret with Hopper, discovers a box containing his research into children possibly kidnapped so their psionic abilities could be tested by Dr. Martin Brenner (Matthew Modine) in Hawkins Lab. Realizing Hopper lied when he said his mother had died, she runs away to find her, using her ability to locate someone from a photograph. In so doing, she discovers she had a kind of “sister” in Hawkins Lab—numbered 008, just as Jane (her real name) was numbered 011. El runs away again to find Kali (Linnea Berthelsen), what 008 now calls herself, in Chicago, where she and four societal outcasts live in an abandoned warehouse and hunt down what El calls the “bad men” from Hawkins Lab. Kali does her best to get El to join their quest to kill their former torturers, but El, after “seeing” the two people she most loves—Hopper and Mike—are in serious danger, decides to return to Hawkins (a fictional Indiana town) to help.

In a moment of crystalline clarity, El realizes that while “her policeman” (Hopper is Hawkins Chief of Police) may not be able to save her, she can save Hopper, Mike and the rest of her newfound friends. In the process, we have cycled through a series of places labeled El’s “home”: the cabin she shares with Hopper, the house belonging to her now-catatonic mother Terry (Aimee Mullins) and her sister Becky (Amy Siemetz), and wherever Kali and her crew happen to be squatting.

In one of the most haunting sequences of the entire series. Kali’s stricken face looking through a van window morphs into El’s forlorn face looking through a window of the bus taking her back to Hawkins. An older black woman (Avis-Marie Barnes), seeing a young girl traveling alone, kindly sits with her. When she asks El where she is going, the latter softly responds, “I’m going to my friends. I’m going home.”

These were the words I struggled to articulate through my tears.

I am still trying to understand why that particular moment turned a show I greatly enjoyed into something far deeper and richer, something resonating with me the way only the most compelling works of art do.

Yes, I was thrilled for El that, after “living” in Hawkins Lab for 12 years, she was fortunate enough to find Mike, Dustin and Lucas within 24 hours of escaping. Or as our wise younger daughter said while watching an early episode, “Mike is taking such good care of El!”

Yes, I spent the 1980s between the ages of 13 and 23, so there is a powerful element of bittersweet nostalgia in Stranger Things for me—and for Nell as well.

Yes, I was…well, not quite a nerd like the Dungeons-and-Dragons playing Mike, Dustin, Lucas and Will, but certainly President of the Math Team and in no way athletic—with the odd exception of gymnastics, in which I did well.

Yes, I attended brutally awkward dances called “mixers” in 7th and 8th grade, though unlike Mike and Lucas I did not slow dance with the girl I “liked” and share a romantic smooch. I did not have my first girlfriend until 10th grade, when I also had my first kiss.

Yes, just as the four boys form “The Party,” two other friends and I started the short-lived Bibliophiles and Explorers Club in 6th grade, while in 8th grade, the six of us who every lunch sat at the same places at the same cafeteria table decided to secede from said cafeteria to form The State of Confusion. We drafted a constitution, elected a “dictator” every week whose only power was to mouth off at anyone he chose (again, all boys), and wrote a letter to then-Secretary-of-State Ed Muskie requesting foreign aid in the form of the total cost of six school lunches. We never did hear back from Secretary Muskie.

All of those identifications and connections are true…but it was something about being 13 years old and “going home” that hit me. I have two possible, if ultimately unsatisfying explanations.

First, three years ago I began to search for my genetic family, so I strongly identify with someone searching for her/his “true” family. Like El, while I met some goof people, I quickly realized my “true” family was the one I was with all along. Just as El was incredibly lucky to happen upon the boys after escaping from Hawkins Lab, I was just as lucky Lou and Elaine Berger adopted me, sight unseen, in the summer of 1966.

Second, I lived in a comfortable split-level house in the Philadelphia suburb of Havertown until my parents separated in March 1977, when I was 10 years old. My mother and I then moved three times in three years, and I enrolled in a new school district twice. After the second moves, we lived in somebody else’s house for a year. Four years after the third move, I went to college, then lived in DC and the Philadelphia suburbs for a year before moving to suburban Boston in September 1989. Over the next 18 years, I lived in seven different apartments before marrying Nell and settling into a suburban Boston apartment with her; we lived there 11 years. By then, however, my father and mother had long since died, and whatever tenuous “home” I had in the Philadelphia suburbs of my youth went with them.

I thus have not been able to go “home” in a very real sense since I was 10 years old—or maybe not since college, when my mother moved out of the apartment we shared while I attended high school. And while I very much have a home now with Nell and our daughters, that is my adult home; my childhood home is long gone.[7]

These explanations are part of why I broke down in tears at that scene, but they only scratch the surface.

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That is not the only scene to induce waterworks, even granting my heartstrings are easily pulled, particularly by father-son stuff, broadly speaking.

At the end of Episode 8 of Season 2, “The Mind Flayer,” continuing into the start of the next episode, “The Gate,” we finally get the reunion, after “353 days…I heard,” between El and Mike, inter alia. It is then Mike realizes that Hopper—with the (mostly) best of intentions—has been “protecting her.”

Actually, let us back up one second to revisit one of the most badass entrances in television history.

Following the tearful embrace of Mike and El is an explosion of emotion, as the former—simultaneously irate, relieved and extremely hormonal—literally pummels a remarkably patient Hopper while shouting “I don’t blame her, I blame you!“ and “Nothing about this is OK!” His screams of impotent young teenage rage quickly fade into the uncontrolled sobs of a boy, however, as he collapses into Hopper’s arms, the latter soothing and comforting Mike with “You’re OK…I’m sorry.”

This is one of a handful of scenes I regularly revisit, primarily because it is the perfect encapsulation of the boy both angry at, and requiring comfort from, a father figure. That Hopper later formally adopts El, making the former Mike’s girlfriend’s father—a very different form of fraught relationship—is less relevant here.

More to the point, however, it distills into one nearly-flawless scene a moment I needed to have with my father at some point, but never did.

As I said, my parents separated on March 2, 1977. I knew it was coming; my mother and I had been poring over apartment floor plans for weeks. Nonetheless, the night before the separation, my father did something he had never done before: he sat down at our kitchen table to type a school assignment for me, a two-page report I had written on George Gershwin for my 5th grade music class.

When he had finished, he set the papers aside and asked me if I knew what was happening tomorrow. Yes, I said. But before I even had the chance to yell at him that “I don’t blame her, I blame you,” he did something else I had never seen him do before.

He started to cry.

Which meant I started to comfort my distraught father, rather than the other way around. How could I be angry or sad at a man so obviously broken?

And this was not the last time I had to play comforting adult to an actual adult. My ex-Philly-cop grandfather once accidentally spilled steaming hot tomato soup down my chest; despite the pain, however, I ended up assuring my shattered grandfather I was fine. Meanwhile, I was 15 when my father died from his third heart attack, but after a short night of grieving, I was helping to take care of his girlfriend as we sat shiva; to my mother’s credit, she hosted the shiva despite her divorce being finalized seven months earlier. Finally, given that my mother spent so much time caring for her only natural child, a severely mentally disabled daughter—why I was adopted in the first place—there was little space in my childhood for that sort of cathartic outburst.

It is thus only natural that watching Mike absolutely unload on Hopper only to be folded into his arms in comfort provided a kind of catharsis by proxy. This works well as a first approximation to why I am so deeply moved by that scene.

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There are other scenes that provoke a similarly emotional reaction—again, that is what compelling art is supposed to do—including…

  • El reading Hopper’s undelivered speech, with Hopper—presumed to be dead—narrating over shots of the Byers family moving out of their house, taking El with them: Joyce-the-mother replacing Hopper-the-father.
  • Mike’s charming fumbling attempt to ask El to go to the Snowball with him, using a furtive kiss to replace the words he cannot speak. El’s small surprised smile of delight is a masterclass in facial acting.[8]
  • Mike and El saying the awkward goodbyes of teenagers just before reading Hopper’s speech, with El screwing up the courage to tell Mike, “I love you too.” (I would not hear a girl say that to me—if memory, that devious trickster, serves—until my freshman year at Yale).

But I will close with one of the most beautiful scenes I have ever seen on television: Hopper driving El to Hawkins Lab to close “the gate” just after El is reunited with her friends. As filmed, it is just a “father” and a “daughter” talking, quietly but with purpose, just as I have done hundreds of times with my own daughters, with the caveat neither daughter is telekinetic or has extrasensory perception, nor have I ever referred to myself as “a black hole.” The father sets aside his anger—mostly at himself—simply to listen. And in a gut-punch moment, we realize that in the year Hopper has taken care of El, he never told her about his own daughter Sara, whose untimely death from what we think is leukemia ended his marriage, drove him into alcohol and drug abuse, and sent him back to Hawkins from what we think is New York City. I love my wife and daughters, and I cannot fathom losing any of them. Meanwhile, the closest my father ever came to that level of honest self-awareness with me was the night before he separated from my mother—though even then he never truly took responsibility for it.[9]

But for all Hopper shows us how broken he really is (setting up his slow-burn breakdown in Season 3), El—who also admits having been “stupid” (“It sounds like we both broke our rule,” admonishes Hopper gently) by running away to her mother and Chicago—simply takes his hand in forgiveness.

Cue the waterworks—as a father of daughters, as the child of a father, as someone with no patience for cynicism and prevarication.

By the way, did I mention that Mike looks a LOT like me as a boy, sans braces, while El looks a good deal like Nell to me, except with brown hair?

Until next time…

[1] Nell has read everything Stephen King has ever written.

[2] Episode 5 of Season 3, “The Flayed”

[3] Episode 8 of Season 3, “The Battle of Starcourt”

[4] The awful tracks would be both the excessive gore and the glaring plot holes, such as 1) how the music from the Indiana Flyer could have been recorded over the transmission of the Russian code, 2) how the Russians knew anything at all about “the gate” having been opened in Hawkins Lab by El in November 1983—but were still trying to open their own gate eight months later, 3) how the Russians knew about “the gate” but not about what horrors lay behind that gate, and 4) why El refers back to Mike’s inadvertent admission he loves her but NOT to Mike’s charmingly inept attempt to tell her directly in the grocery store.

[5] Episode 2 of Season 3, “The Mall Rats”

[6] Episode 9 of Season 2: “The Gate”

[7] The house is still there, and I drive past it once a year or so, but the point stands.

[8] This was the first kiss in the lives of both actors as well, I have been told. Curiously, while I had my first romantic kiss at 15, the first time I kissed a girl in a remotely romantic way was also while “acting.” At the end of a 3rd grade play about the relative importance of intelligence and luck, Mr. Intelligence (yours truly) kisses Miss Luck (a female classmate whose name I sadly forget). As our eldest daughter would say, “so cringe.”

[9] Suffice to say my father liked to play cards and visit the racetrack.

December 2019 update: Democratic presidential nomination and general election polling

With the sixth Democratic presidential nomination debate set for December 19, 2019 in Los Angeles, California, here is an updated assessment of the relative position of the now-15 declared candidates. Since the previous update, four candidates exited the race: Miramar, Florida Mayor Wayne Messam on November 20, former United States House of Representatives Member (“Representative”) Joe Sestak of Pennsylvania on December 1, Montana Governor Steve Bullock on December 2, and, rather surprisingly given that she had qualified for the sixth debate, United States Senator (“Senator”) from California Kamala Harris on December 3. The 13 candidates who have abandoned their quest to be the 2020 Democratic presidential nominee each exited with grace, class and dignity; I commend them for it.

To learn how I calculate the value I assign to each candidate, NSW-WAPA (national-and-state-weighted weighted-adjusted polling average), please see here;[1] for recent modifications, please see here.

And, of course, here is the December 2019 lighthouse photograph in my Down East 2019 Maine Lighthouses wall calendar.

Dec 2019 lighthouse.JPG

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Table 1 below aggregates data from all national and state-level polls publicly released since January 1, 2019(as of 1:00 am EST on December 19, 2019), including:

  • 284 national polls (including 50 weekly Morning Consult tracking polls and 30 weekly YouGov tracking polls)
  • 38 Iowa caucuses polls
  • 39 New Hampshire primary polls
  • 12 Nevada caucuses polls
  • 33 South Carolina primary polls
  • 73 Super Tuesday polls[2]
  • 78 polls from 20 other states.[3]

There are now 558 total polls, up from 488 last month.

Table 1: National-and-state-weighted WAPA for declared 2020 Democratic presidential nomination candidates

Candidate National IA NH NV SC Post-SC NSW-WAPA
Biden 28.1 19.9 20.8 27.3 36.3 27.2 25.7
Warren 16.0 18.3 17.6 18.8 12.6 18.2 17.0
Sanders 16.5 15.5 17.5 19.0 11.7 16.2 16.0
Buttigieg 6.2 15.1 11.1 6.1 4.5 6.4 9.1
Steyer 0.5 2.1 1.5 3.1 3.1 0.3 2.1
Yang 2.0 2.0 2.6 2.7 1.4 1.4 2.1
Klobuchar 1.5 4.0 2.0 1.3 0.9 1.3 2.1
Booker 2.1 2.1 1.7 1.5 2.8 1.5 2.0
Gabbard 1.0 1.4 2.9 1.1 0.9 0.9 1.6
Castro 0.9 0.5 0.2 1.0 0.2 1.1 0.55
Williamson 0.3 0.1 0.4 0.3 0.5 0.2 0.30
Delaney 0.3 0.5 0.4 0.00 0.3 0.2 0.28
Bennet 0.3 0.3 0.2 0.4 0.2 0.3 0.28
Bloomberg 0.7 0.2 0.2 n/a 0.3 0.3 0.21
Patrick 0.05 0.00 0.05 n/a 0.1 0.1 0.04
DK/Other 23.6 18.0 20.8 17.4 24.2 24.4 20.6

The race continues to follow the same pattern. Former Vice President Joe Biden remains the nominal frontrunner (25.7, down from 26.2), primarily because of his 23.7-percentage-point (“point”) lead in South Carolina, essentially unchanged from 24.0 last month. However, he is less strong in Iowa and New Hampshire, where the two candidates battling for second place—Massachusetts United States Senator (“Senator”) Elizabeth Warren (17.0, down from 17.3) and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders (16.0, up from 15.8)—are much closer to first place. And this more-inclusive version of NSW-WAPA overstates the gap between Biden and Warren; only examining polls conducted entirely after June 26, 2019, when the first round of Democratic presidential debates ended, Biden drops to 24.6 and Warren rises to 18.2; Sanders is at 15.8. Rounding out the Big Four, overall and in the four earliest states, is South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg (9.1—up from 8.1, and 7.1 the month before). These four candidates account for more than two-thirds (68.0%) of declared Democratic voter preferences.

Looking only at Iowa and New Hampshire, meanwhile, shows an even tighter race, especially when only post-first-debate polls are considered. Using these more recent polls, Iowa is effectively a four-way tie, with Warren at 19.7, Biden at 18.9, Buttigieg at 16.0 and Sanders at 15.0. There is a similar scrum in New Hampshire, with Biden at 19.5, Warren at 19.4, Sanders at 17.0 and Buttigieg at 11.4.

In the next tier are five candidates with NSW-WAPA between 1.6 and 2.1 who are running out of chances to rise into the top four: billionaire activist Tom Steyer, entrepreneur Andrew Yang, Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar and New Jersey Senator Cory Booker—essentially tied for 5th place—followed by Hawaii Representative Tulsi Gabbard. Other than Booker, these candidates rose in the last month, particularly in the early contests. However, only Steyer, Yang and Klobuchar will be joining the Big Four on Thursday’s debate stage, despite protests by Booker and former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro, who remains mired around 0.6. The top nine candidates total more than three-quarters (77.7%) of declared Democratic voter preferences.

While Castro and the remaining six candidates divide just 1.7 between them, nobody else seems close to ending their campaign soon. Indeed, Castro missed the December 9 deadline to run in 2020 against Texas Senator John Cornyn. Meanwhile, the upsurge in NSW-WAPA for “Don’t Know/Other” reflects lingering support for Harris.

Returning to the debates, seven pollsters—six nationally[4] and one in South Carolina[5]–conducted polls of the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination both before (but after the October 2019 debate) and after the November 2019 debate. Simple average differences in polling percentage (South Carolina poll results weighted four times national results) show measurable gains for Buttigieg and Steyer (+1.7 points each), Gabbard (+0.9) and Booker (+0.6), as well as measurable declines for Biden (-2.9) and, especially, Warren (-4.1). Warren’s decline was even sharper after weighting averages by pollster quality (-5.9) and number of days between polls (-7.9): her decline was steepest in higher-quality polls conducted farther apart in time. This decline is reflected in the decline in Warren’s NSW-WAPA from 19.1 last month to 18.2 now using only polls conducted after the first Democratic candidate debate. By contrast, “Don’t Know/Other,” Castro, Sanders, Booker and Klobuchar saw higher increases in support, albeit still small, with higher-quality polls conducted farther apart in time.

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On December 13, 2019, FiveThirtyEight unveiled its own 2020 Democratic presidential nomination polling aggregations. We use different aggregation methods, so while values we estimate for each candidate are broadly similar, there are clear differences, most notably in the relative standings of Buttigieg and Warren in Iowa and New Hampshire. I encourage you to compare our methods and results, especially since I base much of my own methods on their example.

Here are four key areas where our aggregation methods differ.

First and foremost, I combine state and national polling averages into a single overall value: NSW-WAPA; FiveThirtyEight does not. Similarly, when a state has not been polled for a while, FiveThirtyEight adjusts each candidate’s standing in that state by the change in their national standing, or “secular trend.” I do not do this. The first four states are polled often enough to make such adjustment unnecessary there, and I use time-and-quality weighted averages of a) the 10 Super Tuesday states and b) all subsequent states, mitigating the need for secular trend adjustment. Moreover, while I think such adjustment is necessary for general election polling, particularly the closer the election is, I am skeptical state-level primary polling moves in tandem with national polling, if only because there is no “national presidential nomination primary” to assess.

That secular trend is apparent in how much worse Warren is faring in Iowa and New Hampshire in FiveThirtyEight’s models compared to mine, likely due to her polling decline since the last debate, as well as the corresponding stronger position of Buttigieg in those states.

Second, the way I weight elapsed time since a poll was conducted compared to the way FiveThirtyEight does means NSW-WAPA is slower to detect sustained movement in a candidate’s standing. Still, it caught the major movements: the decline in support for Biden and former Texas Representative Beto O’Rourke since the start of the debates, the rise of Harris after the first debate and her subsequent decline, and the slow steady ascent of first Warren (with a recent decline) then Buttigieg.

Third, FiveThirtyEight adjusts for the tendency of some pollsters to release more favorable results for some candidates, on average, relative to others. I do not, simply because I had not performed or seen the calculations. Also, adjusting for this mathematical “bias” in my general election polling aggregates rarely alters final aggregates very much. However, if I can obtain the bias estimates FiveThirtyEight uses, I may consider using them.

Finally, FiveThirtyEight assigns a higher weight to polls with a larger sample size; I do not weight by sample size at all. For one thing, this would give inordinate influence to Morning Consult tracking polls, whose average sample size in 2019 has been 14,562—while their pollster rating is B/C (which I code 2.5/4.3 = .581). There is in fact a slight inverse relationship between average sample size and pollster quality: r=-0.20 for 24 polling agencies who have conducted two or more national Democratic nomination contest polls in 2019.[6] Moreover—and here my epidemiological training comes into play—increasing sample size makes an estimate more precise (i.e., smaller margin of error) but does not reduce any systematic bias; the latter is reduced through the sort of adjustment discussed in the previous paragraph. Simply put, I see no valid methodological reason for giving more weight to polls with higher sample sizes.

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There has been a slight pro-Trump trend in recent polls of hypothetical matchups between potential 2020 Democratic presidential nominees and President Trump I may address in a later post. For now, though, here are the averages: Biden would beat Trump nationally by 7.6 points, Warren by 3.1 points and Sanders by 4.9 points, while Buttigieg would lose by 0.3 points and Booker by 0.7 points[7]; Bloomberg, based on eight polls—seven released in the last two months, would win by 1.2 points. The other eight candidates for whom I have matchup data would lose by between 2.9 (Klobuchar) and 9.3 (spiritual advisor Marianne Williamson) points, although these numbers are misleading, as they are primarily based upon data from pollster Harris X, who tend not to push undecided voters to choose, making for unusual polling margins.

Weighted by a rough estimate of the likelihood of winning the nomination (NSW-WAPA/.794), the 2020 Democratic nominee would beat Trump by 3.4 points, broadly in line with the median Democratic presidential margin (+3.0) in the previous six presidential elections, which include three elections with an incumbent seeking reelection and three elections with no incumbent. Excluding Biden and Sanders, however, decreases the margin to -0.2 points, with the caveat from the preceding paragraph.

Comparing available state-level results,[8] which decide presidential elections via the Electoral College, to my partisan-lean measure 3W-RDM implies Democrats would win the national popular vote by between 3.7 (excluding Biden and Sanders) and 5.8 points. Most encouraging to Democrats should be polls from North Carolina (R+6.0), Georgia (R+9.6), Arizona (R+9.7) and Texas (R+15.3), which show Democrats either even (Georgia) or within five points of Trump; on average, they imply a national Democratic lead of 8-9 points, confirming strong opportunities for Democrats in the southeast and southwest.

By contrast, polls from Democratic-leaning Nevada (D+2.0) show Democrats anywhere from 0.7 points ahead to 2.1 points behind, implying Democrats would lose nationwide by 1.3-4.1 points. And while Democrats are 2.1-5.5 points ahead in the swing state of Michigan, which Trump won by 0.16 points in 2016, their position is…wobbly…in Florida (R+3.4), Pennsylvania (R+0.4) and Wisconsin (D+0.7), all of which Trump won narrowly in 2016.

On balance, however, Democrats remain extremely competitive in a wide range of swing and Republican-leaning states against an incumbent president, with the most likely nominees—Biden, Warren, Sanders, Buttigieg—beating him by a combined 4.8 points.

Until next time…

[1] Essentially, polls are weighted within nation/state by days to  nominating contest and pollster quality to form an area-specific average, then a weighted average is taken across Iowa (weight=5), New Hampshire (5), Nevada (4), South Carolina (4), time-weighted average of subsequent contests (2) and nationwide (1). Within subsequent contests, I weight the 10 March 3, 2020 “Super Tuesday” states (Alabama, California, Colorado, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia) twice subsequent contests. As of this writing, I have at least one poll from (in chronological order) Maine, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, Washington, Arizona, Florida, Illinois, Georgia, Wyoming, Wisconsin, Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Oregon, Montana and New Jersey.

[2] Primarily California (31), Texas (19) and North Carolina (8)

[3] Primarily Wisconsin (13), Florida (12), Pennsylvania (9) and Michigan (8)—not coincidentally, the four states President Donald J. Trump won in 2016 by the narrowest margins.

[4] Morning Consult Tracking, Monmouth University, Fox News, YouGov, IBD/TIPP, CNN/SSRS, Quinnipiac University

[5] YouGov

[6] The correlation increases to -0.43 if you exclude Morning Consult.

[7] Although this matchup has not been assessed since late September.

[8] From 27 states: Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Michigan, North Carolina, Texas, Iowa, Arizona, South Carolina, Minnesota, Nevada, Massachusetts, Florida, New York, Kentucky, Maine, Ohio, North Dakota, California, Alaska, Washington, Colorado, Missouri, Utah, Virginia, Montana, Connecticut, Georgia.

A Surrealist Epic Post-Thanksgiving Poem

Since we first started hosting Thanksgiving dinner in, I believe, 2012, I have been responsible for the epic cleanup. As with all good rituals, it started as a one-off: I put Nell and the girls to bed and said good night to the last of our guests to leave with the understanding I would finish cleaning the living/dining room and kitchen.

This meant two things.

One, pulling out my portable CD player and earbuds and four older CD mixes. Forget whistling while you work: there was full on singing and dancing. Cavorting, even.

Two, it was not enough simply to run the dishwasher, make things passably tidy and leave the rest until morning. No, I had to restore the living/dining to its pre-meal state, which included moving furniture to its normal location; wash, dry and put away every single pot, dish and piece of flatware; store every leftover; and clean (within reason—I could not run a dust buster or vacuum cleaner) the two rooms, including taking out the garbage and recycling.

If memory serves, that first cleanup took about three-and-a-half hours, with dazzling results; if there is such a thing as kinetic zen, this is it.

And a ritual was born.

In preparation for Thanksgiving 2019, I curated a playlist of 55 tracks totaling 3 hours and 50 minutes on my classic flywheel iPod. I usually make the playlist a bit too long, finding myself wandering around listening to the last few tracks, but this year I actually had to restart the mix, playing the first two tracks again while I took out the garbage and recycling.

Darn, what a shame.

To honor this mix, of which I am quite proud, I decided to create a surrealist epic poem consisting of representative (read: the ones I most enjoy singing) lyrics from each track in sequence. As three tracks are instrumentals, two serve as overtures to the two parts of the poem, and one introduces the dramatic conclusion.[1]

It is no secret I have eclectic taste in music, though given my recent obsession with Stranger Things (after enjoying David Harbour as the guest host on Saturday Night Live on October 12, 2019, Nell and I watched all 25 episodes in seven weeks), there is a heavy emphasis on the generic classifications of “New Wave” (11 tracks), “Post-Punk” (4) and “Synthpop” (3); seven other tracks could easily be classified under this rubric as well, for a total of 25. Moreover, 30 tracks were released between 1980 and 1989; the show is set in 1983-85 (11 tracks). That said, eight tracks from the 1970s fall into a broad Soul/R&B/Funk/Disco category, six other tracks from that decade fall into a broad folk rock/singer-songwriter/soft rock category. Finally, four of the seven tracks released between 1990 and 2016 fall into a grunge/Alternative Rock category, two are from movie/television soundtracks and, last but far from least, is the joyous Americana of “Square Glass in the Wall” by the Four Legged Faithful.

Given the inherent spirit of randomness masquerading as creativity, I illustrate this epic poem with our eldest daughter’s unnamed creation from November 28, 2014, the day AFTER Thanksgiving that year.

IMG_1455.JPG

**********

Part 1

Overture: Theme from Stranger Things by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein

 

Well lately

You look around

You’re wondering what you’re doing

Yeah lately

You look around

You’re wondering what you’re seeing

What you’re doing.

 

I know you

Were expecting a one-night stand

When I refused

I knew you wouldn’t understand

I told you twice

I was only trying to be nice

Only trying to be nice

Ooh, I didn’t mean to turn you on.

 

So grab your friends, get the train comin’ through

Climb on board, where you leave’s up to you

Leave your worries behind

‘Cause rain, shine, don’t mind

We’re ridin’ on the groove line tonight.

 

Ohh, if I had my wits about me now

About me now

I would tear across the waterway somehow

Oh somehow

The body has never turned its back on me this way

Dare I say

Something was wrong.

 

The wild dogs cry out in the night

As they grow restless, longing for some solitary company

I know that I must do what’s right

As sure as Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus above the Serengeti

I seek to cure what’s deep inside, frightened of this thing that I’ve become.

 

Every day, every night

In that all old familiar light

You hang up when I call you at home

And I try to get through

Ant I try to talk to you

But there’s something stopping me from getting through.

 

Nothing lasts forever

Of that I’m sure

Now you’ve made an offer

I’ll take some more

Young loving may be

Oh so mean

Will I still survive

The same old scene?

 

We must play our lives like soldiers in the field

The life is short

I’m running faster all the time

Strength and beauty destined to decay

So cut the rose in full bloom

‘Til the fearless come and the act is done

A love like blood

A love like blood.

 

And I was here to please

I’m even on my knees

Makin’ love to whoever I please

I gotta do it my way

Or no way at all.

 

Come doused in mud, soaked in bleach

As I want you to be

As a trend, as a friend

As an old

Memoria, memoria

Memoria, memoria

And I swear that I don’t have a gun

No I don’t have a gun.

 

The body’s weak, the shadow’s strong

Walk through the fire

Through the dust and ashes

While the building crashes

Walk through the flame

Lion show no sign of fear.

 

I find myself on canvas

I find myself on stage

Can you see me?

Are you near me?

And I long to know you’re real

And I long for you to be a part of me

I long to know you’re real

And I long for you to be a part of me.

 

I might like you better if we slept together

But there’s something in your eyes

That says maybe

That’s never

Never say never.

 

This old town’s changed so much

Don’t feel that I belong

Too many protest singers, not enough protest songs

And now you’ve come along, yes, you’ve come along

And I never met a girl like you before.

 

Politician’s promises

Have made all of us doubting Thomas’

And as we all adjust our confidence

Still in you I trust

In you I trust

In you I must

I trust you more each day

You seem to mean exactly what you say

Friend and lover, lovely friend.

 

Like the fool I am and I’ll always be

I’ve got a dream, I’ve got a dream

They can change their minds but they can’t change me

I’ve got a dream, I’ve got a dream

Oh, I know I could share it if you want me to

If you’re goin’ my way, I’ll go with you.

 

Get around town, get around town

Where the people look good, where the music is loud

Get around town, no need to stand proud

Add your voice to the sound of the crowd.

 

Where are you going now, my love

Where will you be tomorrow?

Will you bring me happiness?

Will you bring me sorrow?

Oh, the questions of a thousand dreams

What you do with what you see

Lover, can you talk to me?

 

But no matter where the days have left you

Every day ends at the street café

The street café

And no matter where the road may take you

Every time it brings you back to the street café

Yeah the street café.

 

Get on up, on the floor

‘Cause were gonna boogie oogie oogie

‘Till you just can’t boogie no more

Ah boogie, boogie no more

You can’t boogie no more

Ah boogie, boogie no more

Listen to the music.

 

Don’t talk to me about love

(yesterdays shatter, tomorrows don’t matter)

Don’t talk to me about love

(yesterdays shatter, tomorrows don’t matter)

Don’t talk to me about love

(yesterdays shatter, tomorrows don’t matter).

 

Shadows from the buildings creep along the parking cars

While the women spank their babies and the old men just drink all day in bars

And the people that “never see it” always end up as the ones who’ve seen it all

And the liquor store is crowded, while an empty phone booth rings another call

And the hills that used to all seem green now look an ugly brown

And no one ever found any movie stars on the stormy side of town.

 

All the love gone bad turned my world to black

Tattooed all I see, all that I am, all I’ll be yeah

Oh oh ooh

I know someday you’ll have a beautiful life

I know you’ll be a star in somebody else’s sky, but why

Why, why can’t it be, oh can’t it be mine?

 

Rough boys

Don’t walk away

I wanna buy you leather

Make noise

Try and talk me away

We can’t be seen together

Tough kids

What can I do?

I’m so pale and weedy.

 

I have waited a lifetime

Spent my time so foolishly

But now that I found you

Together we’ll make history

And I know that it must be the woman in you

That brings out the man in me

I know I can’t help myself

You’re all my eyes can see.

 

Dream on white boy, white boy

Dream on black girl, black girl

And wake up to a brand new day

To find your dreams have washed away.

 

Now the thing that I call livin’ is just bein’ satisfied

With knowin’ I got no one left to blame

Carefree highway, got ta see you my old flame

Carefree highway, you seen better days

The mornin’ after blues from my head down to my shoes

Carefree highway, let me slip away

Slip away on you.

 

So you’re left standing in the corner

You keep your face turned to the wall

A fading dream

A fading memory

A shooting star that had to fall

Mama Mama I keep having nightmares

Mama Mama Mama am I ill?

Mama Mama Mama hold me tighter

Mama Mama do you love me still?

 

Is there something you should tell me?

Is this the time of bliss?

Should I live without you?

I dare not contemplate.

 

Part 2

Overture: Theme from The Shadow by Jerry Goldsmith

 

This is not a horse race where winners beat the time

This is not a funeral with mourners in a line

This is not a sitcom where everything’s alright

This is not a prison with terror through the night

Go… don’t you go

Won’t you stay with me one more day?

 

You don’t pull on Superman’s cape

You don’t spit into the wind

You don’t pull the mask

From that old Lone Ranger

And you don’t mess around with Jim.

 

You function like a dummy with a new ventriloquist

Do you say nothing yourself?

Hanging like a thriller on the final twist

You know you’re getting stuck on the shelf

Come up to me with your “What did you say?”

And I’ll tell you straight in the eye, “Hey!”

D.I.Y.

 

There’ve been times in my life

I’ve been wonderin’ why

Still, somehow I believed we’d always survive

Now, I’m not so sure

You’re waiting here, one good reason to try

But, what more can I say?

What’s left to provide?

 

New cities by the sea

Skyscrapers are winking

Some hills are never seen

The universe expanding

We’re gazing out to sea

Blue dolphins are singing

Minds swim in ecstasy

Clear planet, ever free

Topaz.

 

Feel sunshine sparkle pink and blue

Playgrounds will laugh

If you try to ask

“Is it cool?”

If you arrive and don’t see me

I’m going to be with my baby

I am free, flying in her arms

Over the sea.

 

Ooh, I’m in love, I’m in love

I’m in love, I’m in love

I’m in love

Ooh, I feel love, I feel love

I feel love, I feel love

I feel love.

 

And we would go on as though nothing was wrong

And hide from these days we remained all alone

Staying in the same place, just staying out the time

Touching from a distance

Further all the time.

 

And in the morning when he’s gone

Please don’t sing that sad sad song

I don’t want to hear it

Forget about him

Let him go

It won’t hurt what he don’t know.

 

Dance with the boogie get high

‘Cause boogie nights are always the best in town

Got to keep on dancing

Keep on dancing

Got to keep on dancing

Keep on dancing.

 

Hey Jimmy

They’re calling you back

They want you to come back

And take out the garbage

They want to talk to you

About something

They found in your drawer

Under a Hustler magazine.

 

And just when I think

Everything is in its place

The universe is secure

The whole thing explodes in my face

It’s just another-

It’s just another day…

It’s just another day.

 

I can live without love

If I wanted to in this lonely room

But I don’t want to so I leave it up to you

To wash away my gloom.

 

I tried but could not bring

The best of everything

Too breathless then to wonder

I died a thousand times

Found guilty of no crime

Now everything is thunder.

 

This life I’m living’s getting so hard to feel

Ooh Ooh, I’m missing you

The days are empty and the nights are unreal

Ooh Ooh, I’m missing you.

 

You said you want to reach the sky

So get up

The feeling’s right

And the music’s tight

On the disco nights

Just say you will

Just do what you feel

I’m for real.

 

It’s gotta be a strange twist of fate

Telling me that Heaven can wait

Telling me to get it right this time

Life doesn’t mean a thing

Without the love you bring

Love is what we’ve found

The second time around.

 

In the middle, in the middle, in the middle of a dream

I lost my shirt

I pawned my rings

I’ve done all the dumb things.

 

Oh, all alone, in my bed at night

I grab my pillow and squeeze it tight

I think of you

And I dream of you, all of the time

What am I gonna do?

I want your love.

 

Here’s that rhythm again

Here’s my shoulder blade

Here’s the sound I made

Here’s the picture I saved

Here I am.

 

Ain’t nobody

Loves me better

Makes me happy

Makes me feel this way

Ain’t nobody

Loves me better than you.

 

Shopping Center crazy

I need some fast relief

The boss says, “Boy, you’re lazy”

But I’m just bored beyond belief.

 

[Musical interlude: Theme from The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension by Neil Norman]

 

What’s a poor boy to do when he’s fallen in love with you?

Help me make it through the night.

Everything’s gonna’ be alright.

Yeah…

You take me to the top.

Perhaps, just as Jews on Passover spread the reading of the Haggadah across multiple family members and guests, you could use these stanzas to defuse your next fractious gathering. Simply have each person present read a stanza, cycling through everyone until the final one. I expect the utter nonsense of the successive passages will serve as a much- needed distraction.

And, of course, here is the actual playlist:

Stranger Things Kyle Dixon & Michael Stein 2016
Lately INXS 1990
I Didn’t Mean to Turn You On Robert Palmer 1985
The Groove Line Heatwave 1978
Square Glass In The Wall The Four Legged Faithful 2012
Africa Toto 1982
Nowhere Girl B-Movie 1982
Same Old Scene Roxy Music 1980
Love Like Blood Killing Joke 1985
Turn Me Loose Loverboy 1980
Come as You Are Nirvana 1991
Walk Through the Fire Peter Gabriel 1984
Between Something and Nothing The Ocean Blue 1989
Never Say Never Romeo Void 1982
A Girl Like You Edwyn Collins 1994
In You I Trust Rupert Holmes 1979
I Got a Name Jim Croce 1973
The Sound of the Crowd The Human League 1981
Carry On Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young 1970
Street Cafe Icehouse 1982
Boogie Oogie Oogie A Taste of Honey 1978
Don’t Talk To Me About Love Altered Images 1983
Stormy Side of Town Stan Ridgway 1986
Black Pearl Jam 1992
Rough Boys Pete Townshend 1980
Feels Like the First Time Foreigner 1977
Original Sin INXS 1984
Carefree Highway Gordon Lightfoot 1974
Nightmares A Flock of Seagulls 1983
Beyond Doubt Gene Loves Jezebel 1986
The Shadow Jerry Goldsmith 1994
Stay Oingo Boingo 1985
You Don’t Mess Around With Jim Jim Croce 1972
D.I.Y. Peter Gabriel 1978
This Is It Kenny Loggins 1979
Topaz The B-52’s 1989
Strawberry Letter 23 The Brothers Johnson 1977
I Feel Love Donna Summer 1977
Transmission Joy Division 1979
When It’s Over Loverboy 1981
Boogie Nights Heatwave 1976
Jimmy Jimmy Ric Ocasek 1982
Just Another Day Oingo Boingo 1985
Love Or Let Me Be Lonely The Friends of Distinction 1970
Let Me Go Heaven 17 1982
Missing You Dan Fogelberg 1982
Disco Nights (Rock Freak) GQ 1979
Twist of Fate Olivia Newton-John 1983
Dumb Things Paul Kelly and the Messengers 1987
I Want Your Love Chic 1978
Stay Hungry Talking Heads 1978
Ain’t Nobody Rufus & Chaka Khan 1983
Rage In the Cage J. Geils Band, The 1981
The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Neil Norman 1984
Take Me to the Top Loverboy 1981

You are welcome.

Until next time…

[1] I am deeply indebted to LyricFind for help in deciphering many of these lyrics.