Further interrogating memories of childhood fires

I plan to complete a first draft of my book Interrogating Memory: Film Noir Spurs a Deep Dive Into My Family History…and My Own later this summer. No, I have not yet identified a publisher or a literary agent, though that is the goal. But as with my Noir of Who essay, I always planned to finish this labor of love before contemplating next steps.

Meanwhile, as much as I have learned about my genetic family, my legal family and my own past, key questions have not yet been satisfactorily answered. For example, while I have definitively identified my genetic mother, she steadfastly refuses to communicate with me beyond one terse text to her younger sister, whom I met in person in August 2019. Furthermore, while I am nearly certain I have identified my genetic father—a man who, unfortunately, died in 2006—I cannot discuss him with my genetic mother.

Similarly, I remain unable to pinpoint the precise date and circumstances of two fires from my early childhood. In fact, I may never obtain this information for the early 1970s fire at the John Rhoads Company. Founded in West Philadelphia in 1886 as a carpet cleaning company, my paternal grandfather and his younger brother first assumed control of it in 1926, with my father assuming control in 1960. Folks who live adjacent to the site—now an empty lot—recall the fire, but not precisely when it happened. My maternal aunt is certain my father hired a convicted arsonist named Eddie “Psycho” Klayman to set the fire, presumably to collect insurance money; it is likely my father was already accumulating gambling debts. Advertisements for John Rhoads stopped appearing in the Philadelphia newspapers at the end of March 1972, only to resume for its second, and final, location in September 1974. But within that time frame, there is no public record of a fire at that location.

On a more positive note, though, I may be zeroing in on exact date of the fire at my childhood home, on Sue Ellen Drive in Havertown, Pennsylvania. One breakthrough occurred during the same trip I met my genetic maternal aunt: Assistant Chief Mike Norman of the Manoa Fire Department showed me this photograph. “Sue Ellen Drive” is written on its back, and Chief Norman stated the uniforms were those worn in 1973, meaning it depicts the aftermath of the fire in question—if what I have deduced through an analysis of the events of that night is correct.

IMG_4252 (2)

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As for the fire, let me once again walk through what I know—or think I know—about that night, with the caveats these events occurred nearly 50 years ago, my mother died in 2004, and my older sister is unable to articulate any memory of that night.

At the time of the fire, I was in first grade.

If this is correct, that limits the fire to sometime between September 1972 and June 1973.

We did not have school the next day, and my father was out particularly late, suggesting it was a Friday or Saturday night; I am almost certain it was a Saturday night.

It being a Saturday night is purely impressionistic—it is what comes to mind when I probe the memory. Either way, though, this further reduces the number of days on which the fire could have occurred.

The first I knew something was wrong was when I awoke in my bedroom—all three bedrooms were on the top floor of the split-level three-story house—to find Mindy standing quietly in my doorway.

Mindy is severely mentally impaired. According to her annual Life Enrichment Plan, which summarizes every aspect of her treatment and history, she lived with on Sue Ellen Drive through June 1973—when I finished first grade—then was in and out of residential facilities until entering her current residence in December 1974.

I then could smell—or feel or sense—the smoke and/or heat rising from the ground floor playroom, situated beneath Mindy’s bedroom. I must have roused our mother from our parents’ bedroom—our father was not home—because the next thing I remember is the three of us standing on our neighbor’s lawn with our Keeshond Luvey, still wearing whatever we had worn to sleep, watching the firefighters.

There are a number of things to unpack here.

First, Luvey—so named by our mother because “he loves everybody!”—was born on December 17, 1972. We acquired him—one night at a pet store in Wilmington, Delaware for…reasons—when he was only a few weeks old, likely in early January 1973. If Luvey was with us, that limits the day of the fire to a Friday or Saturday night between January and June 1973.

Second, I do not recall any of us needing heavy jackets, nor do I think it was raining or especially windy; the photograph, at the very least, does not contradict this. This would eliminate January and February, when average minimum temperatures in Philadelphiawere 15.6 and 13.4 degrees Fahrenheit, respectively, narrowing the time frame to between March and May 1973.

Thankfully, the firefighters had responded to the alarm—sent by a neighbor perhaps—quickly enough to prevent the fire from spreading beyond the playroom, though that was destroyed. As Chief Norman remembered it, he and his unit received the call while they were returning to the fire station from another local fire.

If Chief Norman’s memory is correct, there was at least one other fire that night, not just in Havertown, but in the smaller area served by Manoa Fire Company—one of five volunteer fire stations in the town. Hold that thought.

Deeming our house uninhabitable, my mother drove Mindy, Luvey and I to a nearby motel to spend the night. For some reason—my memory says Mindy unnerved the front desk clerks, though they may simply not have allowed dogs and/or had no vacancies—we were unable to rent a room there. We returned to our house—our father had not yet returned—to sleep, despite the lingering smell of the fire. Our mother would later say the fire started because she had not turned off the hair drying unit—one with an apparatus you tilted over your head while sitting—she had been using in the playroom. I do not know if she had simply forgotten to do so, or if it needed to “cool down.” Either way, she thought her husband would turn if off when he came home. He never did, and the unit either overheated or short-circuited, starting the fire.

To be honest, this story has never made a great deal of sense; my wife Nell openly scoffs at it. Moreover, our mother’s older sister more than hints it was set by Klayman because my father had not yet paid him for setting the John Rhoads fire.[1] However, Chief Norman did not find the story unreasonable at all, analogizing it to teenagers leaving hair curlers on in the bathroom.

That there was such a hair drying apparatus can be seen on the right side of this photograph. While I cannot be certain when this photograph was taken, Luvey could easily be a few months old, and I could easily be six years old, putting it in the spring of 1973.

Luvey on Sue Ellen Drive 1974

A few years later, the “fire marshal” came to Lynnewood Elementary School to speak to us about fire safety; Sitting to my right in the auditorium during the assembly was one of my best friends, a girl who lived just a few houses from me. When one particular house appeared on the screen, she prodded my arm. Pointing to the screen, she excitedly whispered, “Matt…That’s your house!”

It was, in fact, my house. Not only had a photographer been at the fire, but someone had filmed it as well. Theoretically, either could have been the work of a neighbor, though Chief Norman suggested the photograph, at least, was taken by a professional.[2] This would also explain how the film shot that night made its way into the fire safety film watched that day in Lynnewood. Incidentally, Haverford Township did not have a designated fire marshal until the 1980s, so I suspect the speaker was the fire chief of one of Havertown’s five volunteer fire companies.

But that begs this question: if the fire in our house merited photographing and filming, why can I not find a single mention of it in the Delaware County Daily Times (DCDT), which regularly featured stories about local fires? Using the invaluable Newspapers.com, I carefully went through every edition from March 1 through May 31, 1973—page by tedious page—on the off chance either the street name or the town name had been written incorrectly, but there was not a single reference to a house fire anywhere in Havertown. I did find an April 26 story describing three different fires throughout all of Delaware County in the previous 24 hours.[3] Presumably, two fires in the same night in a much smaller geographic area would have been irresistible—assuming, of course, they had been aware of it in time; reader tips apparently drove much of the DCDT’s reporting on events such as fires.

However, in the spring of 1973, the DCDT did not publish a Sunday edition—meaning events which occurred on a Saturday night could easily have been missed; there was more than enough other news to fill Monday editions. If the fire in our house occurred on Saturday night/Sunday morning, this could be the reason—other than simply being deemed insufficiently newsworthy—the fire in our house did not appear in the DCDT.

Meanwhile, what can we learn using the weather conditions I remember from the night of the fire?

Table 1 displays the temperature, precipitation level and wind speed at 12 midnight on every Friday and Saturday night between March 1 and June 2, 1973. Midnight is a reasonable approximation to the time the fire occurred, and weather conditions rarely appreciably varied between 10 pm and 2 am.

Table 1: Midnight Weather Conditions of Friday and Saturday nights, March 1 to June 2, 1973

Date Weekday Temperature in degrees Fahrenheit Precipitation level in inches Wind speed in miles per hour
March 2 Friday 47 0 5, NNE
March 3 Saturday 42 0.08 13, NNE
March 9 Friday 44 0 12, ENE
March 10 Saturday 42 0 9, E
March 16 Friday 57 0.06 10, E
March 17 Saturday 41 0 29, WSW
March 23 Friday 42 0 12, NNW
March 24 Saturday 43 0 6, W
March 30 Friday 47 0 5, WNW
March 31 Saturday 50 0.06 10, E
April 6 Friday 51 0 8, W
April 7 Saturday 50 0.02 2, SSE
April 13 Friday 40 0 8, N
April 14 Saturday 40 0 7, S
April 20 Friday 49 0 12, E
April 21 Saturday 56 0 7, SW
April 26 Friday 52 0 17, ENE
April 27 Saturday 55 0 15, SW
May 4 Friday 47 0 14, W
May 5 Saturday 54 0 9, N
May 11 Friday 56 0 8, WNW
May 12 Saturday 55 0 7, SW
May 18 Friday 46 0 6, W
May 19 Saturday 57 0 7, SSE
May 25 Friday 54 0 12, ENE
May 26 Saturday 51 0.04 7, ESE
June 1 Friday 67 0 6, WSW
June 2 Saturday 64 0.09 11 pm, 0.10 1 am 8, SE

Beginning with the assumption there was zero precipitation at the time of the fire, we can eliminate March 3, March 16, March 31, April 7, May 26 and June 2. Next, using the assumption it was not especially windy, let us additionally eliminate any night wind speed was at least 10 miles per hour (MPH): March 9, March 17, March 23, April 20, April 26, April 27, May 4, May 25. It is not at all clear how to define “not cold enough for anything other than pajamas/nightgown and bathrobes,” but let us use 45 degrees Fahrenheit as a minimum temperature. That further eliminates March 10, March 24, April 13 and April 14.

At this point, the only Saturday nights remaining are April 21, May 5 and May 12, forcing me to rethink my memory the fire took place earlier in the year; the conditions were unseasonably mild .

And here things get interesting.

At just after 10 am on the morning of April 21, 1973, 21-year-old Barry Foster was turning the Sun Oil truck he was driving—loaded with 8,000 gallons of gasoline—from I-95 onto Chester Pike in Eddystone, when “it just toppled over.”[4] Foster managed to escape the truck, which began to leak its contents; he and the owner of a nearby auto repair shop—who happened to be Vauclain Fire Company Chief Donald “Duck” Daliessi—began to warn occupants of nearly buildings. Their quick actions, along with those of another local police lieutenant and fire chief, saved lives: no sooner had 1301-03 Chester Pike been evacuated when gasoline leaking into its basemen was ignited by a heating apparatus. The resulting fire—at one point rising 100 feet into the sky—burned until around noon, destroying five buildings. Other than some cuts from flying debris, though, nobody was seriously injured. Traffic was snarled for five hours, however, and firefighters remained on the scene for nearly 24 hours—or until roughly 10 am on Sunday, April 22, 1973–which was Easter Sunday that year. IF the fire occurred the previous night, this could explain why we could not rent a room at the motel–they were booked for the holiday weekend.

No other fire—not even multiple fires the same night in the same town—could have compete for limited space in a local paper that typically was limited to 22 pages on Monday. And this it is at least consistent with the idea our house fire did not make the DCDT because it occurred on a Saturday night and was deemed insufficiently newsworthy for the following Monday edition.

The same applies to the night of Saturday, May 5. Early the following morning, a fire left five residents of apartments at 17 and 19 Main Street in Darby; just after the alarm was sounded at 3:39 am, a Yeadon police car collided with a Darby Fire Company No. 1 fire truck two block east, with no serious injuries.[5] One week later, the DCDT splashed this headline across the top of the front page of its Monday, May 14 edition: “2 hurt, 13 die in weekend crashes.”

Of course, none of this really proves anything—I cannot be absolutely certain the fire was not on a school night; or on a colder, wetter night; or that Luvey was with us. Indeed, the essence of interrogating memory is not to take any remembered fact or story detail at face value. Moreover, I was no more than six years old when this fire occurred, and that was 47 years ago; memories morph and fade in far shorter time frames.

Nonetheless, this is exactly the kind of rigorous and meticulous validation—using a range of independent, verifiable data—interrogating memory demands. Thus, I tentatively, in the lightest pencil, list April 21, May 5 and May 12, 1973 as the likeliest dates the playroom in my childhood house was destroyed by a fire of questionable origin.

Until next time…please stay safe and healthy…

[1] I should point out that IF this is true—and it is a huge IF—this would confirm what I strongly suspect: the John Rhoads fire occurred no more than a few months after April 1, 1972.

[2] He gave me the name Brian Feeney, of Feeney Fire Films, but his Twitter profile states he did not start taking photographs of fires until around 1996, after serving 23 years as a firefighter.

[3] “Fires hit Yeadon, Radnor, Brookhaven; no one injured,” Delaware County Daily Times (Chester, PA), April 26, 1973, pg. 12

[4] “Police, firemen are credited with saving lives in fire, blast,” Delaware County Daily Times (Chester, PA), April 23, 1973, pg.1

[5] “5 left homeless in blaze,” Delaware County Daily Times (Chester, PA), May 7, 1973, pg.1

Quantifying Biden’s choices for running mate

Presumptive 2020 Democratic presidential nominee Joseph R. Biden Jr. stated in a May 27, 2020 interview he hoped to choose his vice-presidential running mate by August 1. In March, Biden definitively stated he would choose a woman to run with him. Meanwhile, a recent Morning Consult poll tested the relative strength of nine rumored candidates, finding that only three Senators even slightly boosted Biden’s electoral position: United States Senator (“Senator”) from Massachusetts Elizabeth Warren, California Senator Kamala Harris and Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar. The other six—Wisconsin Senator Tammy Baldwin, Nevada Senator Catherine Cortez Masto, former Georgia State House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham and United States House of Representatives Member (“Representative”) from Florida Val Demings—all hurt Biden, albeit slightly. Notably, the first three Senators sought the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, boosting their national profile in the process—and making it difficult to distinguish “actual” electoral boost from name recognition.

In the early summer of 2016, when it became clear former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would be the Democratic presidential nominee that year, I built a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet listing 200 possible choices—including every current Senator, governor, Representative serving as party leader or Committee ranking member, mayor of one of the top 10 cities by population, or Cabinet member, as well as anyone who had served in that position within the last 10 years and a handful of other options. Virginia Senator Tim Kaine—who Clinton named her running mate on July 22, 2016—just edged out Klobuchar and former Labor Secretary Hilda Solis for the highest score.

Once it became clear Biden would be the nominee, meanwhile, I built an analogous spreadsheet. Along with every current and recent Senator, governor, big-city mayor and Cabinet official, I included all 89 women serving in the House as Democrats, as well as Abrams.

However, I excluded any woman who was:

  • Born outside of the United States, citing the “natural born citizen” requirement of Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution of the United States of America
  • Under the age of 35, citing the same requirements
  • From the state of Delaware, citing the requirement in Amendment XII that the vice president “shall not be an inhabitant of the same state as” the president.
  • A non-political figure such as media titan Oprah Winfrey or former First Lady Michelle Obama

My final list contained 123 candidates, including:

  • 80 current (79) or former (1) House members
  • 21 current (16) or former (5) Senators
  • 7 current (5) or former (2) governors
  • 9 former Cabinet officials
  • 4 mayors: former Houston, TX Mayor Annise Parker, as well as Atlanta, GA Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms; San Francisco, CA Mayor London Breed and Chicago, IL Mayor Lori Lightfoot
  • Abrams and former presidential candidate Marianne Williamson

And here is a scene our younger daughter drew on the still-popular white board. This has nothing to do with Biden’s selection of a running mate; I just like it.

Nora Drawing May 2020

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To assess the candidates for vice president, I examined three broad categories:

  1. Demographic balance
  2. Governmental experience
  3. Electoral strengths and weaknesses.

The first category is both symbolic—women of color overwhelmingly support the Democratic Party—and practical—this year’s vice-presidential nominee could well the next presidential nominee. It also acknowledges that Biden is a 77-year-old white man, meaning a much younger woman of color would provide the clearest contrast.

The second category speaks to the ability of the Vice President to assume the presidency at a moment’s notice, as stipulated in Amendment XXV. This is especially important in a Biden Administration, as Biden, who would be the oldest president of the United States, suffered two brain aneurysms in February 1988.

Finally, the third category stipulates that no presidential candidate should ever assume victory, so it is important for a running mate to increase the likelihood of such a victory by, for example, unifying the party or helping to win key voting blocs or regions.

Ideally, then, Biden’s running mate would be a younger woman of color with sufficient governmental experience who can enhance his chances of defeating President Donald J. Trump in November 2020. Or, at the very least, his running mate will not hurt Biden in any of these categories; above all else, a vice-presidential running mate should do no harm.

I calculated a score for each variable, as follows:

1. Demographic balance.

Age. To balance the fact Biden will be 78 years old on January 20, 2021, I created the following point system, using the somewhat-arbitrary “center point” age of 57 (20 years younger than Biden) and adjusting for someone being too young:

  • 35-46 (n=17): (57-Age)-2*(47-Age)
  • 47-66 (60): 57-Age
  • 67-76 (32): (57-Age)-3*(Age-67)
  • ≥77 (12): (57-Age)-5*(Age-67)

This measure penalizes being older—especially older than Biden—far more than it rewards being younger, and it ranges from 10 for 47-year-old Representative Jahana Hayes of Connecticut to -124 for 86-year-old California Senator Dianne Feinstein.

Race/Ethnicity. To balance the fact Biden is white, I assigned the following points:

  • White (n=77): -50
  • Asian (6): 25
  • Native American (2): 50
  • Latina (10): 75
  • Black (25): 90
  • Black and Asian (1): 100

Harris has a Jamaican father and an Indian mother.

Sexual orientation: I want to think sexual orientation does not matter—but I subtracted 25 points if a listed woman was openly lesbian (Baldwin, Lightfoot, Parker and Minnesota Representative Angela Craig) and 10 points if there were rumors (former Maryland Secretary Barbara Mikulski, former Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano).

TOTAL. The sum of these three measures ranges from -124 (Feinstein) to 102 (Harris)—literally the two Senators from California. The top 10 candidates in this category are listed in Table 1:

Table 1: Top 10 2020 Democratic Vice-Presidential candidates by Demographic Balance

Name Age Ethnicity Lesbian? TOTAL
California Senator Kamala Harris 55 Black/

Asian

No 102
Connecticut Representative Jahana Hayes 47 Black No 100
Former Georgia State House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams 46 Black No 99
Massachusetts Representative Ayana Pressley 46 Black No 99
San Francisco Mayor London Breed 45 Black No 98
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms 50 Black No 97
New York Representative Yvette Clark 55 Black No 92
Alabama Representative Terri Sewell 55 Black No 92
Former National Security Advisor Susan Rice 55 Black No 92
Georgia Representative Lucy McBath 59 Black No 88
Former EPA Director Lisa P. Jackson, Jr. 59 Black No 88
Former Attorney General Loretta Lynch 61 Black No 88

The average value of this sum is -21.4, with a standard deviation (SD) of 71.1; the median is -47 (Florida Representative Kathy Castor, New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Nevada Representative Susie Lee).

2. Governmental experience.

I calculated the number of years a candidate held each of these offices—Senate, governor, other statewide office (last 10 years only), House, Citywide office (last 10 years only), Cabinet—up to a maximum of 12 years, the equivalent of two Senate terms, to avoid overlapping with age too much. From this I subtracted the number of years since a candidate held that office. I assigned Abrams 1.75 years for her time as Minority Leader of the Georgia State House.

I weight experience as follows:

  • Senate = 5
  • Governor = 4
  • Other statewide office = 3
  • House = 2
  • Citywide office = 2
  • Cabinet = 1
  • Other (e., Abrams) = 1

This variable ranges from 0 for Williamson to 64 for New Hampshire Senator (and former Governor) Jeanne Shaheen. The top 10 candidates in this category are listed in Table 2:

Table 2: Top 10 2020 Democratic Vice-Presidential candidates by Governmental Experience

Name Office 1 Office 2 TOTAL
New Hampshire Senator Jeanne Shaheen Senator, 12 years Governor, 6 years (-5 for time since 2008) 64
New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand Senator, 12 years None 60
Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar Senator, 14 years None 60
Washington Senator Maria Cantwell Senator, 20 years None 60
Washington Senator Patty Murray Senator, 28 years None 60
Michigan Senator Debbie Stabenow Senator, 20 years None 60
California Senator Dianne Feinstein Senator, 28 years None 60
Wisconsin Senator Tammy Baldwin Senator, 8 years House, 14 years (-8 years since 2012) 52
Former Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill Senator, 12 years (-2 years since 2018) None 50
Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren Senator, 8 years Credit 1 year for Directing Consumer Financial Protection Bureau 41

The average of this weighted sum is 17.8 (SD=15.1); the median is 16 (14 women with 8 years in the House, including former 2020 Democratic presidential nomination candidate Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii).

3. Electoral strengths and weaknesses.

For this category, I considered eight questions:

  1. Will she help Biden win a key state in the Electoral College?
  2. Does she lack foreign policy or national security experience?
  3. Will she provide ideological balance?
  4. Will her ascension to the Vice Presidency cost Democrats a Senate seat?
  5. Is she a Senator up for reelection in 2020?
  6. Did she run for president in 2020?
  7. Has she ever run for political office?
  8. Is she a first-term member of the House?

Swing state status. On average, a vice-presidential nominee adds 2-3 percentage points to the party’s margin in her/his home state. But for most states—ones that are reliably Democratic or Republican, for example—these extra points mean nothing. In fact, choosing a running mate from one of these states could be considered a lost opportunity.

Using the probability Biden wins a given state in the 2020 presidential election, I determined which states were most likely to be the “tipping point” states—the state that gets him to the necessary 270 Electoral votes (EV) when states are ranked from most to least Democratic.

There are 13 states, including Delaware and the District of Columbia, where Biden is at least a 99.7% favorite, and they total 175 EV. The 54 candidates from these states were assigned -10 points.

In three states—Maine, New Mexico and Oregon—Biden is a 97.6-97.7% favorite; these states total 16 EV, although Maine assigns one EV to each of its two Congressional districts (CD). Thus, while the four candidates from New Mexico and Oregon are assigned -5 points, the two from Maine are assigned 0, because the 2nd CD could be pivotal. This gets us to 191 EV.

In four states—Colorado, Michigan, Minnesota and Virginia—Biden is a 93.6-95.8% favorite; these states total 48 EV, for an overall total of 239. These states could possibly be the tipping point states, though that currently seems very unlikely. Thus, the 14 candidates from these states are assigned 0 points.

In three states—Nevada, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania—Biden is an 86.9-88.3% favorite; these states total 30 EV, for an overall total of 269. These are the first states that could reasonably be called tipping point states, thus the 11 candidates from these states are assigned 2 points.

The bottom line is that, RIGHT NOW, Biden is at least a 5-1 favorite in enough states to earn him 268 or 269 EV, depending on one CD in Maine.

The next most likely states for Biden are Wisconsin (78.8%, 10 EV) and Florida (71.1%, 29 EV), either of which would theoretically secure victory over President Donald J. Trump. Baldwin and Representative Gwen Moore could guarantee a victory in Wisconsin. Six House Members, including Demings, could guarantee a victory in Florida. These eight candidates each earn 10 points.

There are three states totaling 44 EV, meanwhile, where Biden is roughly a 2-1 favorite (64.8-66.0%): Arizona, North Carolina and Ohio. As they are marginally less likely tipping point states, the nine women from these states each earn 5 points.

Georgia’s 16 EV are close to a toss-up right now (42.7%), but it is even less likely to be a tipping point state. Still, Abrams and McBath each earn 3 points.

The next likeliest states for Biden to win are Iowa (24.8%; 6 EV) and Texas (17.8%; 38 EV). Representative Cindy Axne of Iowa gets 1 point, as do the six female House Members from Texas.

Finally, I gave McCaskill of Missouri (2.3%) -2 points and eight women from the 0-0-0.9% states of Alabama, Kansas, Louisiana, North Dakota, Oklahoma and West Virginia -3 points.

In other words, I deducted the most points for candidates hailing from states in which Biden is a near-certain winner and fewer points for hailing from reliably Republican states, while adding the most points for the likeliest tipping point states.

I then added one point for every state west of the Mississippi River, as no Democratic presidential or vice-presidential nominee has come from there, and I subtracted one point for being from the regionally-redundant states of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Maryland.

Foreign policy/national security. I deducted 2.5 points from the 17 candidates who never served in the Senate, House or in a Cabinet-level foreign policy/national security role.

Ideological balance. I assume Biden is in the ideological center of the Democratic Party.

For each member of the House and Senate since January 2017 FiveThirtyEight.com calculates how often that member has voted with President Trump when he has taken a clear public position. House Members vote far less often with Trump (average=13.3%) than Senators (30.2%). Female Senators with the lowest Trump scores are Gillibrand (12.4%), Warren (13.9%) and Harris (16.5%), while Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema and former North Dakota Senator Heidi Heitkamp each voted with Trump just over half the time.

Using this score as a proxy for ideology—with the added bonus of specifically reflecting opposition to Trump, I calculated how many SD above or below the mean each candidate is relative to their house of Congress; for the 20 women with no Trump scores, I estimated a score based upon age and state. I then assigned points as follows:

  • ≤-1.25 = 10
  • -1.00 to 1.24 = 7.5
  • -0.75 to -0.99 = 5
  • -0.50 to -0.74 = 2.5
  • -0.25 to -0.49 = 0
  • -0.01 to -0.24 = -1
  • 00 to 0.24 = -2
  • 25 to 0.49 = -3
  • 50 to 0.75 = -4
  • 75 to 0.99 = -5
  • 00 to 1.99 = -7.5
  • ≥2.00 = -10

Ultimately, I deducted more points for being (relatively) well to the right of Biden than for being ideologically similar, as the former would actually harm Biden’s chances to win over the party’s progressive base, while the latter is effectively “do no harm.”

Loss of Senate seats. The Democrats are currently at a 53-47 disadvantage in the Senate, though they have a solid chance of recapturing it in November. But this means that every Democratic Senate seat is vitally important.

I thus deducted 10 points from Senators Warren, Shaheen, Sinema and Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire because a Republican governor would appoint a replacement for each of them. I also deducted 2.5 points for Senators Baldwin, Cortez Masto and Jacky Rosen of Nevada because, while their home state governors are Democrats, there is a non-trivial chance Democrats could lose a special election in Wisconsin or Nevada. Finally, I deducted 10 points for the two female Democratic Senators facing reelection this year: Shaheen and Tina Smith of Minnesota; both are heavily favored to win reelection, keeping those seats in Democratic hands.

Other considerations. Running for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination both exposed candidates to extreme public scrutiny and served as a rough test run for campaigning for vice president; I thus added 5 points to Gabbard, Gillibrand, Harris, Klobuchar, Warren and Williamson. Six former Cabinet officials (Burwell, Jackson, Lynch, former EPA Director Gina McCarthy, former Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker and Rice) have never run for any political office, let alone the vice presidency, so they each lost 10 points. And, given how hard Democrats worked to recapture the House in 2018, I deducted 5 points from each of the 28 female first-term Representatives.

TOTAL. This measure ranges from -21 for Rice, a Marylander who has never run for political office, to 16 for Arizona Representative Ann Kirkpatrick, whose Trump Score of 3.1% is the lowest of any woman in Congress. The top 10 candidates in this category are listed in Table 3:

Table 3: Top 10 2020 Democratic Vice-Presidential candidates by Electoral Strengths and Weaknesses

Name Strengths Weaknesses TOTAL
Arizona Representative Ann Kirkpatrick Tipping point state; low Trump Score None 16
Wisconsin Representative Gwen Moore Tipping point state None 12.5
Florida Representative Donna Shalala Tipping point state; low Trump Score First term 12.5
Former Florida Representative Corinne Brown Tipping point state None 12
Florida Representative Frederica Wilson Tipping point state First term 10
Florida Representative Debbie Wasserman-Schultz Tipping point state Ideologically similar to Biden 9
Florida Representative Val Demings Tipping point state Ideologically similar to Biden 8
Florida Representative Kathy Castor Tipping point state Ideologically similar to Biden 8
Florida Representative Lois Frankel Tipping point state Ideologically similar to Biden 8
Wisconsin Senator Tammy Baldwin Tipping point state Possible loss of Senate seat 7.5

The average of this sum is -4.5, (SD=7.6); the median is -6 (Representatives Suzanne Bonamici of Oregon, Clarke, Nydia Velasquez of California, Bonnie Watson Coleman of New Jersey).

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That these three sums measure somewhat distinct criteria can be seen in their Pearson correlations:

  • Demographic balance / Governmental experience                         -0.31
  • Governmental experience/ Electoral strengths and weaknesses -0.08
  • Demographic balance / Electoral strengths and weaknesses         0.13

It is thus not surprising that only six women—Senators Cortez Masto and Harris, and Representatives Marcia Fudge of Ohio, Barbara Lee of California, Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas and Moore—have above average scores in all three categories. Harris, in fact, comes closest to being at least 1 SD above the mean in all three categories, being +1.74 SD on Demographic Balance, +0.94 SD on Governmental Experience and +1.0 SD on Electoral Strengths and Weaknesses.

Indeed, when you convert each category sum to a z-score—number of SD above or below the mean—then sum them into an Initial Score, Harris ranks second, at 3.72, behind Moore at 3.95, with Brown (3.53), Gillibrand (3.52) and Klobuchar (3.47) rounding out the top five. Based upon the correlation of this initial sum with the three categories, it is slightly more associated with Electoral Strengths and Weaknesses (r=0.66) than with Demographic Balance (0.53) or Governmental Experience (0.40).

However, I adjusted these scores one final time, by adding up to 1 point or subtracting up to 10 points (Brown, for her 2017 conviction for fraud). Thus, I added 1 point to Warren, and 0.5 points each to Harris and Klobuchar, for Morning Consult poll performance. Similarly, Cortez Masto, Baldwin, Demings, Lujan Grisham and Whitmer each lose 0.5 points for their Morning Consult poll performance. That said, I added back 0.5 points to Demings for her service as Orlando Chief of Police because a woman of color serving in law enforcement could play well in the current climate. Speaking of criminality, I deducted 3 points from Moore for a tire-slashing incident involving her son and 2 points from Fudge for remarks she made about a serious domestic violence incident.

Other large deductions were:

It is not clear how the impeachment of President Trump will play in the election, but on the theory it is slightly more likely to rile Trump voters than inspire Biden voters, I deducted 0.5 points from Demings, as well as Texas Representative Sylvia Garza and California Zoe Lofgren, who served as House Managers during the Senate trial.

Other deductions include 1 point each from Gillibrand for a seeming inauthenticity in her ideology, from California Representative Norma Torres for controversial remarks on the House floor, from Lynch for her questionable tarmac meeting with former President Bill Clinton, from Gabbard for being generally disliked within the Democratic Party, from New York Representative Kathleen Rice for being a former Republican and from Whitmer for an ill-timed “joke” her husband made.

The Final Score is correlated 0.69 with the Initial Score, with an average of -0.40 (SD=1.63); the median is -0.453 (Michigan Representative Debbie Dingell and Parker). Only 24 of the 121 potential 2020 Democratic vice-presidential candidates had Final Scores of 1.00 of higher, as Table 4 shows.

Table 4: Top 2020 Democratic Vice-Presidential candidates by Final Score

Name Strengths Weaknesses TOTAL
California Senator Kamala Harris Black/Asian; 55;

Ran for president;

To left of Biden;

Popular with base

California;

Only 4 years in Senate

4.18
Wisconsin Senator Tammy Baldwin Wisconsin;

58;

8 years in Senate/14 years in House

White;

Lesbian; Possible loss of Senate seat; Ideologically similar to Biden

2.56
New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand 53;

12 years in Senate;

Well to left of Biden;

Ran for president

White;

New York; Disappointing presidential run; Suspected inauthenticity

2.55
Florida Representative Frederica Wilson Black;

Florida;

10 years in House

78 2.52
Michigan Senator Debbie Stabenow Michigan;

20 years in Senate

White;

70;

Slightly to right of Biden

2.40
Ohio Representative Joyce Beatty Black;

Ohio

70;

Ideologically similar to Biden

2.22
Florida Representative Val Demings Black;

62;

Florida; Orlando Chief of Police

OnIy four years in House; Ideologically similar to Biden 2.07
North Carolina Representative Alma Adams Black;

North Carolina

73;

Ideologically similar to Biden

1.92
New York Representative Yvette Clark Black;

55;

12 years in House;

Left of Biden

New York 1.77
Former Georgia State House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams Black;

46;

Georgia; Progressive reputation

No foreign policy or national security experience;

No office higher than state House

1.77
Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren Strong progressive; Ran for president; Very popular with party base;

8 years in Senate

White;

70;

Loss of Senate seat; Massachusetts

1.75
Washington Senator Maria Cantwell 61;

20 years in Senate

White; Washington; Similar to Biden ideologically 1.73
Florida Representative Kathy Castor  Florida;

53;

14 years in House

White;

Slightly to right of Biden

1.69
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms Black;

Georgia;

50

No foreign policy or national security experience;

Never run statewise

1.63
Georgia Representative Lucy McBath  Black;

59;

Georgia;

Left of Biden

First-term House Member 1.57
Texas Representative Veronica Escobar Latina;

50;

Texas;

Left of Biden

First-term House Member 1.56
California Representative Barbara Lee Black;

21 years in House;

Left of Biden

California;

73

1.54
Washington Senator Patty Murray 28 years in Senate White; Washington;

69

1.53
Michigan Representative Brenda Lawrence Black; Michigan;

66

Ideologically similar to Biden 1.49
New York Representative Nydia Velasquez Latina;

28 years in House

New York;

67

1.40
Alabama Representative Terri Sewell Black;

54;

10 years in House

Alabama; Slightly right of Biden 1.38
California Representative Linda Sanchez Latina;

51;

14 years in House

California 1.23
Former Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis Latina;

62

California;

Out of federal office since 2013

1.13
California Representative Karen Bass Black;

66

California 1.02

This list includes 14 current House Members, seven Senators, a current mayor, a former Cabinet Secretary (Solis) and Abrams. Thirteen are Black, seven are White and four are Latina. Five are from California; three are from Florida, Georgia and New York; and two are from Michigan and Washington. Fifteen are between the ages of 46 and 66, while three are older than 70. Only seven are ideologically to the left of Biden, though only three are (slightly) to the right of Biden.

If you eliminate the three House Members over 70, the two first-term House Members, the two white women slightly to the right of Biden, as well as 66-year-old Karen Bass of California, 67-year-old Nydia Velasquez of New York and 69-year-old Patty Murray of Washington, you are left with 15luja solid candidates:

14. Former Labor Secretary Hilda Solis

13. California Representative Linda Sanchez

12. Alabama Representative Terri Sewell

11. Michigan Representative Brenda Lawrence

         10. Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms

9. Washington Senator Maria Cantwell

8. Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren

7. Former Georgia State House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams

6.  New York Representative Yvette Clark

5. Florida Representative Val Demings

4. Ohio Representative Joyce Beatty

3. New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand

2. Wisconsin Senator Tammy Baldwin

1. California Senator Kamala Harris

Really, however, one choice jumps out from all the rest: Harris, the 55-year-old, Black/Asian progressive-voting Senator who ran a solid race for president, is broadly popular with the Democratic Party and has a wealth of criminal justice experience. Were she not from reliably-Democratic California—which, at the same time, would not cost Democrats a Senate seat—and had at least one full Senate term under her belt, she would be THE obvious choice.

That said, there are a number of excellent choices Biden could make, including familiar names like Warren, Abrams, Demings, Gillibrand and Baldwin, as well as sleeper choices like brilliant, black, 55-year-old, five-term Representative Terri Sewell of Alabama.

Meanwhile, consider who did not make this final cut—Klobuchar (0.97), Cortez Masto (0.50), Lujan Grisham (-0.09) and Whitmer (-1.80). It is unlikely any of these four women makes Biden’s short list; although reports suggest Lujan Grisham remains a leading contender, along with Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, Demings, Harris, Former National Security Advisor Susan Rice and Warren.

Please feel free to quibble with my categories and/or assignation of points; I admit up front that much of the latter was arbitrary. With all that, however, Harris still comes out the best choice, by far, whatever way you choose to quantify and aggregate strengths and weaknesses.

Until next time…please stay safe and healthy…

Biden vs. Trump: The view from six months out

A note to readers: I have temporarily stopped writing “dispatches” about how my wife Nell, our two daughters and I cope with social distancing and the closure of Massachusetts schools through the end of the 2019-20 school year because they started to feel repetitive. When and if that changes, I will resume dispatching.

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As I write this, it is exactly six months until the 2020 United States (U.S.) presidential election, which will conclude on November 3, 2020. On April 8, 2020, U.S. Senator from Vermont Bernie Sanders announced he was suspending his campaign for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, making former Vice President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. the presumptive nominee against incumbent Republican president Donald J. Trump.

Using all publicly-available polls of the presidential election—both nationally and at the state level, recognizing presidential elections are determined by the Electoral College—conducted since January 1, 2019, I have been tracking the relative performance of contenders for the 2020 Democratic nomination against Trump. When given the choice, I used polls of likely voters over those of registered voters, and the latter over polls of adults only; I also used polls including such possible third-party candidates as former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz and U.S. House of Representatives Member Justin Amash of Michigan. Table 1 lists the number of national polls conducted each month for both candidates based upon the midpoint of the poll’s field dates; some polls were actually conducted in two months.

Table 1: Number of National Polls Assessing Hypothetical 2020 Match-ups Between Biden/Sanders and Trump by Month

Month Biden Sanders
January 2019 1 1
February 2019 4 3
March 2019 7 6
April 2019 6 6
May2019 7 5
June 2019 10 9
July 2019 8 7
August 2019 8 8
September 2019 15 11
October 2019 18 13
November 2019 8 4
December 2019 14 9
January 2020 20 17
February 2020 23 21
March 2020 33 23
April 2020 41 3
TOTAL 223 146

Just seven of 41 total pollsters (average grade: B-/B) account for 54% of Biden versus Trump polls; the values are similar for Sanders:

  • IBD/TIPP (A/B), 10 polls
  • Fox News (A-), 13 polls
  • Harris X (C+), 13 polls
  • Emerson College (B+), 18 polls
  • Ipsos (B-), 18 polls
  • Morning Consult (B/C), 22 polls
  • YouGov (B-), 36 polls

Figure 1, meanwhile, shows how Biden and Sanders fared monthly against the president, using my weighted-adjusted polling averages, or WAPA. Basically, I use data published by FiveThirtyEight.com to adjust each poll for partisan lean (tendency of a pollster to err more Democratic or Republican than other pollsters in analogous races) and overall quality (using the letter grade assigned by FiveThirtyEight.com). I also weight more recent polls—again using field midpoint—higher, using the ratio of the number of days since January 1, 2019 and the total number of days between January 1, 2019 and November 3, 2020. Finally, I average two different versions of WAPA: one treating polls by the same pollsters as statistically independent values, and one which treats all polls by the same pollster as a single value; differences between estimates are generally negligible.

Figure 1: Monthly weighted-adjusted average margins for Biden and Sanders versus Trump since January 2019Biden and Sanders v Trump since Jan 2019

Only one national poll assessing hypothetical matchups between Biden or Sanders and Trump was conducted in January 2019, so I combined them with the four and three, respectively, from February 2019 to generate Figure 1. Biden and Sanders have consistently led Trump in head-to-head matchups, never dropping below Sanders’ 2.0 percentage point (“points”) lead in December 2019. Through September 2019, Biden’s margin was typically three-to-four points higher, though Sanders still led Trump by 4.3 points on average, versus 7.8 points for Biden. From October 2019 through February 2020, though, the two men fared equally well versus Trump, with Biden ahead an average 5.4 points and Sanders ahead 4.9 points. Once Biden’s nomination began to become clear in March 2020, however, Biden again began to fare better versus Trump than Sanders, averaging a 5.7-point-lead to Sanders’ 3.4-point lead. Overall, Biden has a 6.1-point lead over Trump, not meaningfully different than his lead over the last two months; Sanders exited the race with an overall national lead of 4.3 points versus Trump, though that lead had begun to drop slightly over the last two months.

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Again, however, presidential elections are actually fought across all 50 states and the District of Columbia (“DC”), with the plurality winner in each state/DC winning every electoral vote (“EV”) from that state.

To that end, Table 2 lists the number of polls conducted within each state since January 1, 2019 of hypothetical matchups between Biden/Sanders and Trump, plus that state’s 3W-RDM, an estimate of much more or less Democratic than the nation a state tends to vote; 11 states[1] and DC have not yet been polled. 

Table 2: Number of state-level polls assessing hypothetical 2020 matchups between Biden/Sanders and Trump since January 1, 2019

State 3W-RDM Biden Sanders
Michigan 2.2 33 23
Wisconsin 0.7 30 26
Texas -15.3 27 21
North Carolina -6.0 23 16
Pennsylvania -0.4 23 17
Florida -3.4 19 11
Arizona -9.7 17 14
California 23.2 14 13
New Hampshire 0.1 10 10
Iowa -4.7 9 8
Georgia -9.6 8 6
Ohio -5.8 7 6
Virginia 1.5 7 6
Nevada 2.0 6 6
Utah -33.1 5 3
South Carolina -15.7 4 4
Maine 5.9 4 3
North Dakota -29.4 4 2
Washington 12.1 4 3
Missouri -15.9 4 3
Connecticut 12.8 4 4
New York 21.6 3 1
Colorado 2.2 3 2
Kentucky -28.7 2 1
Montana -18.6 2 2
New Mexico 6.5 2 1
Alabama -28.4 2 2
Kansas -23.4 2 2
Oklahoma -38.1 2 2
New Jersey 12.0 2 1
Mississippi -18.5 2 1
Minnesota 1.5 1 1
Massachusetts 22.1 1 1
Alaska -19.2 1 1
West Virginia -35.5 1 1
Delaware 12.5 1 1
Tennessee -25.8 1 1
Maryland 22.6 1 1
Indiana -16.3 1 0
TOTAL D-6.2 292 227

It is not surprising that eight of the 14 most-polled states thus far are “swing” states, those with 3W-RDM between -5.0 and +5.0, including the four closest states won by Trump in  2016: Florida (19 Biden, 11 Sanders), Pennsylvania (23, 17), Wisconsin (30,26) and Michigan (33,23). In fact, the Pearson correlation between the absolute value of a state’s 3W-RDM and the number of times it has been polled for the 2020 presidential election is -0.47 for Biden and -0.48 for Sanders, meaning the closer a state is to the national average (i.e., a pure toss-up in a dead-even national race), the more often it has been polled. Also highly-polled are large states like California and Texas, red-drifting states like Ohio and Iowa, and emerging Democratic opportunities like Arizona, Georgia and North Carolina. 

While U.S. presidential elections are decided on a state-by-state basis, though, national averages are still important. Combined with 3W-RDM, they provide the “expected Democratic-minus-Republican margin” in each state in 2020, all else being equal. Comparing polling averages to this expected value tells us where Biden may currently be under- or over-performing, or which states have drifted Democratic or Republican since 2016.

For example, Biden leads Trump overall by 6.1 points. North Carolina has recently been about 6.0 points less Democratic than the nation as a whole. Adding those two values together (6.1 – 6.0 = +0.1) yields an expected photo-finish in North Carolina in 2020. However, Biden leads Trump by a mean 2.2 points in 23 polls thus far in North Carolina, meaning Biden is “outperforming” expectations there by about 2.1 points.

This could mean any or all of three things:

  1. WAPA is the more accurate reflection of the November election and either
    1. North Carolina has drifted about two points toward the Democrats since 2016, or
    2. The true “expected value” is somewhere between Trump winning by 5.3 points and Biden winning by 5.5 points, based upon an average 3W-RDM error margin of 5.4 points in recent elections.
  2. The “expected” value is the more accurate reflection, and Republican-leaning voters will drift back toward Trump over the next six months, making North Carolina nail-bitingly close on election day.

Table 3 lists every state’s expected value and WAPA; for ease of presentation, I include Biden-Trump values only.

Table 3: Expected and actual polling margins for Biden over Trump in each state in November 2020

State 3W-RDM Expected WAPA WAPA-Expected
DC 82.0 88.2    
Hawaii 34.3 40.4    
Vermont 27.7 33.8    
California 23.2 29.3 27.1 -2.2
Maryland 22.6 28.7 25.0 -3.7
Massachusetts 22.1 28.2 38.0 9.8
New York 21.6 27.7 27.9 0.2
Rhode Island 18.0 24.1    
Illinois 14.7 20.8    
Connecticut 12.8 18.9 16.9 -2.0
Delaware 12.5 18.6 16.4 -2.2
Washington 12.1 18.2 19.8 1.6
New Jersey 12.0 18.1 16.1 -2.0
Oregon 8.7 14.8    
New Mexico 6.5 12.6 10.4 -2.2
Maine 5.9 12.0 9.2 -2.8
Michigan 2.2 8.4 5.9 -2.5
Colorado 2.2 8.3 6.9 -1.4
Nevada 2.0 8.1 3.5 -4.6
Minnesota 1.5 7.6 12.7 5.1
Virginia 1.5 7.6 7.8 0.2
Wisconsin 0.7 6.8 1.7 -5.1
New Hampshire 0.1 6.2 4.5 -1.7
Pennsylvania -0.4 5.7 4.2 -1.5
Florida -3.4 2.7 1.9 -0.9
Iowa -4.7 1.4 -3.5 -4.9
Ohio -5.8 0.3 3.0 2.7
North Carolina -6.0 0.1 2.2 2.1
Georgia -9.6 -3.4 -0.3 3.2
Arizona -9.7 -3.6 2.0 5.6
Texas -15.3 -9.1 -2.0 7.2
South Carolina -15.7 -9.6 -9.6 0.0
Missouri -15.9 -9.8 -8.6 1.3
Indiana -16.3 -10.2 -14.1 -3.9
Mississippi -18.5 -12.4 -12.9 -0.5
Montana -18.6 -12.5 -16.0 -3.5
Alaska -19.2 -13.0 -4.2 8.8
Louisiana -22.2 -16.1    
Kansas -23.4 -17.3 -11.2 6.1
Nebraska -25.8 -19.7    
South Dakota -25.8 -19.7    
Tennessee -25.8 -19.7 -15.3 4.4
Arkansas -28.2 -22.1    
Alabama -28.4 -22.3 -19.6 2.7
Kentucky -28.7 -22.6 -15.9 6.7
North Dakota -29.4 -23.3 -20.6 2.7
Utah -33.1 -27.0 -12.3 14.7
Idaho -34.2 -28.1    
West Virginia -35.5 -29.3 -34.0 -4.7
Oklahoma -38.1 -32.0 -26.1 5.9
Wyoming -45.7 -39.6    
Average D-6.4 Trump+0.05* Biden+0.9 +1.0

        * Only for the 39 states with both measures

The correlation between the expected margin and WAPA is a very-reassuring +0.96, meaning the polling is broadly in line with the underlying “fundamentals” of the election. Still, Biden is polling ahead of those fundamentals by an average of about one percentage point, meaning the state-level polling as a whole is even better for Biden than his already-solid national polling.

Nonetheless, there are clearly states where Biden is underperforming expectations, including the vital and heavily-polled state of Wisconsin. While Biden leads there by about 1.7 points overall, he “should” be ahead there by about 6.8 points. Moreover, he is trailing by about 3.5 points in nearby Iowa, even though Biden “should” be ahead by about 1.4 points. And while Biden leads Trump by about 3.5 points in Nevada, that is 4.6 points below what the fundamentals suggest.

The story is similar, but more narrowly so, in the key states of Michigan, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire and Florida: Biden leads Trump in these states by an average of 4.1 points, though he “should” lead by an average of 5.8 points, a mean “underperformance” of 1.7 points.

Moreover, there appears to be something of a partisan split in Biden’s over-and under-performance: in the 10 states with both measures and 3W-RDM≥5.0, Biden is underperforming by 0.3 points, on average, though once you remove the single poll of Massachusetts, that jumps to -1.6 points. At the same time, in the analogous 20 Republican states with 3W-RDM≤5.0, Biden is overperforming by 3.2 points, though that drops to 2.6 with the massive outlier of Utah removed.

Let me again stress, however, that there is a lot of “wobble” in the “expected margins,” as well as in the polling averages—especially given that most states have seen very little recent polling. All of this “over- and underperforming” may simply be statistical noise, as we try to read too much into highly stochastic data.

Still, the two values are sufficiently closely aligned to combine them into a single, six-months-out estimate of Biden’s margin over Trump on November 3, 2020, based upon the assumption polls become more predictive as an election gets closer:

  1. Arbitrarily assign expected value and WAPA equal weight as of January 1, 2020.
  2. If the most recent poll in a state was conducted more than 100 days prior to January 1, 2020, WAPA is weighted just 10%. This only applies to Massachusetts, Alaska and Kentucky, with Minnesota the only other state whose most recent poll was conducted in 2019.
  3. WAPA weight increases, by day, with proximity to November 3, 2020.

At the same time, I introduced a probabilistic element into these estimates—rough calculations of how likely Biden is to win the EV from each state, assuming such likelihood is distributed normally:

  1. For expected margins, I used a mean of estimate-0.8 and a standard error of 7.1[2]
  2. For WAPA, I used a standard error of 3.0, roughly the margin of error in most quality polls.
  3. Overall probability Biden wins a state’s EV calculated the same as for predicted final margin

While the means and standard errors are somewhat arbitrary, albeit broadly defensible, the final EV probabilities shown in Table 4 are in line with what other forecasters are saying.

Table 4: Estimated final state margins and probability of winning EV, Biden vs. Trump, November 2020

State EV P(EV): Expected P(EV):

WAPA

P(EV):

Overall

Predicted Margin
DC 3 100.0%   100.0% 88.2
Hawaii 4 100.0%   100.0% 40.4
Vermont 3 100.0%   100.0% 33.8
California 55 100.0% 100.0% 100.0% 27.9
Maryland 10 100.0% 100.0% 100.0% 26.6
Massachusetts 11 100.0% 100.0% 100.0% 29.2
New York 29 100.0% 100.0% 100.0% 27.8
Rhode Island 4 99.9%   99.9% 24.1
Illinois 20 99.8%   99.8% 20.8
Connecticut 7 99.5% 100.0% 99.8% 17.9
Delaware 3 99.4% 100.0% 99.7% 17.5
Washington 12 99.3% 100.0% 99.8% 19.0
New Jersey 14 99.2% 100.0% 99.7% 17.1
Oregon 7 97.6%   97.6% 14.8
New Mexico 5 95.2% 100.0% 97.6% 11.5
Maine 4 94.3% 99.9% 97.7% 10.3
Michigan 16 85.6% 97.5% 93.9% 6.6
Colorado 9 85.5% 99.0% 93.3% 7.5
Nevada 6 84.8% 88.0% 86.7% 5.4
Minnesota 10 83.1% 100.0% 89.4% 9.5
Virginia 13 83.0% 99.5% 93.7% 7.7
Wisconsin 10 80.2% 71.5% 74.3% 3.3
New Hampshire 4 77.7% 93.2% 88.4% 5.0
Pennsylvania 20 75.6% 92.0% 86.9% 4.7
Florida 29 60.7% 73.5% 69.4% 2.2
Iowa 6 53.3% 12.0% 28.4% -1.6
Ohio 18 47.1% 84.1% 72.5% 2.1
North Carolina 15 46.1% 76.5% 67.2% 1.5
Georgia 16 27.5% 46.3% 40.5% -1.3
Arizona 11 26.8% 75.1% 58.7% 0.1
Texas 38 8.1% 25.5% 20.1% -4.2
South Carolina 9 7.2% 0.1% 3.0% -9.6
Missouri 10 6.7% 0.2% 2.9% -9.1
Indiana 11 6.1% 0.0% 2.0% -12.8
Mississippi 6 3.2% 0.0% 1.3% -12.7
Montana 3 3.1% 0.0% 1.3% -14.5
Alaska 3 2.6% 8.1% 3.1% -12.2
Louisiana 8 0.9%   0.9% -16.1
Kansas 6 0.5% 0.0% 0.2% -14.3
Nebraska 5 0.2%   0.2% -19.7
South Dakota 3 0.2%   0.2% -19.7
Tennessee 11 0.2% 0.0% 0.1% -17.5
Arkansas 6 0.1%   0.1% -22.1
Alabama 9 0.1% 0.0% 0.0% -20.9
Kentucky 8 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% -21.9
North Dakota 3 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% -21.6
Utah 6 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% -17.1
Idaho 4 0.0%   0.0% -28.1
West Virginia 5 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% -31.7
Oklahoma 7 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% -29.0
Wyoming 3 0.0% -39.6 0.0% -39.6

Six months before election day 2020, and with all of the caveats about what voting will even look like during a pandemic, Biden is clearly in a commanding position to be elected the 46th president of the United States.

  • He is projected to win by at least 3.3 points in enough states to get him to 279 EV, or 278 depending on what happens in Maine, which, along with Nebraska, allocates two EV to the statewide winner and one each to the winner of its Congressional districts.
    • He has narrower leads in Florida, Ohio and North Carolina, which combine for 62 EV, increasing his total to 340 or 341.
    • Arizona’s 11 EV are balanced on a knife’s edge.
  • He is favored at least 86% in enough states to get him to 268 or 269 EV
    • He would then need to win ONLY ONE of Wisconsin (74.3%), Ohio (72.5%), Florida (69.4%) or North Carolina (67.2%) to win the presidency. Assuming Biden’s chances of winning each state are statistically independent from each other (a lousy assumption), he has about a 99% chance of winning AT LEAST one of these states.
  • He has at least a 58% chance in enough states to earn him 351 or 352 EV, at least 81 more than required.
  • And if things truly break Biden’s way, he has a 40.5% chance to win the 16 EV in Georgia, a 28.4% to win the 6 EV in Iowa, and a 20.1% chance to win the 38 EV of Texas, upping his total to 411-413 EV, depending on what happens in the 2nd Congressional district of Nebraska, which allocates its EV the same as Maine.

Using the simplistic—perhaps even simple-minded—method of multiplying Biden’s probability of winning each state by its EV and summing yields a “projected” EV total of 335.2, fairly close to the 341 generated by taking the 232 EV won by Hillary Clinton in 2016, adding Michigan and Pennsylvania to get to 268, then adding Wisconsin, Florida, Ohio and North Carolina (and the last EV in Maine).

This lead looks even more robust when you make either of two reasonable assumptions:

All polls are overestimating Biden’s margins by 3.0 points.

In this scenario, Biden’s projected EV drops to 286, still 16 more than required. He would be favored at least 80% to win in enough states to win 239 EV, though he would be favored by at least 64% in three states totaling 30 EV, putting him on the doorstep. He would then have to win one of Wisconsin or Ohio, at 44% each; he would have about a 69% chance to do so.

The point is, even if the polls are consistently off by this much, Biden would still be roughly even money to win the presidency. That said, Biden would still be winning by 3.1 points nationally, demonstrating the current Republican bias in the Electoral College.

All polls are underestimating Biden’s margins by 3.0 points.

In this scenario, Biden’s projected EV are a landslide-level 373.7, more than 100 more than necessary. He would be favored at least 80% to win enough states to earn 341 EV, while being a 77.3% favorite in Arizona and a 69.8% favorite in Georgia, for a total of 368 EV. Adding in the states where Biden would be roughly even money—Iowa and Texas—gets us once again to 412.

This appears to be Biden’s upper limit, as even in this scenario where he is wining nationally by 9.1 points, he is no more than 9% favored to win any additional states.

Now, none of this is to say Biden is guaranteed to be the next president of the United States; it would be monumentally foolish for me to conclude that this far from the election, particularly if Amash earns more than, say, three points in the national popular vote. I am simply noting that all indications point very strongly in that direction, based on the data we have right now.

Until next time…please stay safe and healthy…

[1] Hawaii, Vermont, Rhode Island, Illinois, Oregon, Louisiana, Nebraska, South Dakota, Arkansas, Idaho, Wyoming

[2] The former value is the mean arithmetic difference between “expected” and actual D-R margins across 153 state-level contests in 2008, 2012 and 2016, while the latter value is the standard deviation of these values. I recognize this is not a standard error. However, using the value 13.6—the range of values covering 95% of all values divided by 1.96, the final EV projection changes by only 1.0

Dispatches from Brookline: Home Schooling and Social Distancing XIII

I have described elsewhere how my wife Nell, our two daughters—one in 4th grade and one in 6th grade—and I were already coping with social distancing and the closure of the public schools in Brookline, Massachusetts until at least May 4, 2020. Besides staying inside as much as possible, we converted our dining room into a functioning classroom complete with workbooks, flip charts and a very popular white board.

**********

I was wrong.

The ants came back.

They came back with a vengeance, in fact, after a few days of deceptive absence. I opened a kitchen cabinet to get a glass—and three or four of them scurried out of sight. Windex is their bête noire, at I grabbed the bottle from the window ledge behind the kitchen sink and sprayed it liberally in the cabinet, making a mental note to wipe down the glasses later.

Nell bought a set of ant traps, which she strategically placed in the kitchen; they have yet to venture much beyond there. [Eds. note: as of Tuesday, the traps appear to be working]

Saturday, April 18, 2020 was otherwise a quiet and mundane day in our sheltering-in-place haven. When I first checked my iPhone upon awaking, an e-mail from my sister Mindy’s long-term residential facility informed me she had recovered from COVID-19and returned to her regular building; given her age and chronic health conditions, this is remarkable.

For dinner, Nell made pizza from scratch for the third time—achieving the thin crispy whole-wheat crust I had loved the first time she attempted it. Even better: she had restocked our supply of cut pineapple, which I added to pepperoni for my personal pie.

While eating their own pies—our younger daughter’s still without tomato sauce—Nell and the girls watched the third Hunger Games film on our big screen HD television. Following that, Nell and I watched episodes five and six of season three of Broadchurch. And once everyone had gone to bed, I took an earlier bath than usual—I needed a night free from writing and class preparation—then settled on the white sofa to watch Two-O’Clock Courage on TCM OnDemand.

Despite being directed by Anthony Mann, renowned for both classic film noir and noir-tinged westerns, and listed as “film noir” by 12 different experts, I would not classify it as such. Yes, its beautifully-chiaroscuro opening sequence is broadly reminiscent of such iconic films noir as Detour and Scarlet Street, also released in 1945, and it follows the classic noir trope of the amnesiac investigating her/his own possible criminality—mirroring the excellent Street of Chance from a few years earlier. However, it quickly morphs into a standard, albeit mostly entertaining, murder mystery yarn, complete with bumbling police detective, wise-cracking crime reporter, besieged city editor and meet-cute romance.

For all that, I sat up with an animalistic cry of delight during the opening credits, when the name “Bettejane Greer” appeared on the screen. The then-20-year-old actress—with whom I admit to being rather smitten—would soon drop “Bette” from her first name. It was as “Jane Greer” she dominates the absolutely brilliant Out of the Pastone of my three or four favorite movies, full stop. And she steals every scene in which she appears in Two O’Clock Courage, as well.

IMG_3124

Sunday, April 19 was equally banal—in a good way. The night before, I had pulled out my vinyl copies of The Byrds Greatest Hits and a Buffalo Springfield two-disc “best of.” While eating my afternoon “breakfast” then folding laundry, I started to play Side 2 of the latter album—I particularly wanted to hear the propulsive “Mr. Soul”—only to be put off by the poor condition of the vinyl. The Byrds record, however, still sounded terrific, so I rocked out to both sides—especially Side 2, which I practically wore out in high school; at one point, Nell asked me to turn down the volume out of respect for our downstairs neighbors.

For dinner, Nell made a scrumptious all-vegetable whole-wheat lasagna, with a cheese-only version for our younger daughter. The former also stretched her baking chops by making whoopie pies for the first time, using a cookbook I had bought for her the previous summer. I can take them or leave them, to be honest, but these were wicked good. Mirroring the preceding evening, Nell and our daughters watched the fourth and final Hunger Games film, while I worked on my psychedelic rock slides for an upcoming “History of Rock and Roll” class. And then my wife and I wrapped up Broadchurch; I was frankly disappointed with the ending—but I leave it that to avoid spoilers.

Once Nell was in bed, I returned to my slides, easily the single best part of this enforced home schooling. I also confirmed that—despite the blue recycling bins and black trash bins sitting in front of a number of houses on our street—there would be no trash collection on Monday, April 20, a state holiday.

**********

I had a hard time falling asleep, then had a bizarre series of anxiety-driven dreams in the morning. Actually, I had dreamt the night before I was giving a PowerPoint presentation to a large group of people, but the slides showing on the screen were wrong, and I could not find the correct ones anywhere on my thumb drive.

As for Monday morning, meanwhile: while I never have recurring dreams, per se, I have dreamt on multiple occasions I am back in the Philadelphia area, and at one point I make my way to a 24-hour diner (which never looks quite the same) I know to be in a section of the western suburbs where a main road divides into two roads. No such roads or diner exist, and I can only vaguely describe where these roads would be—Conshohocken, maybe, or Norristown—but it is a joyous thing to go this diner. This is not surprising, given my life-long affinity for such places. In this instance, traveling to this diner—and having a strawberry milkshake?—was the culmination of a series of unpleasant events relating to breaking something behind glass in a hotel, and needing to escape, and being very unhappy in a hotel room at night until it occurs to me I can leave and go to this diner…

Oh…right.

About an hour after Nell brought me my first mug of coffee, I finally roused myself. And I had to decide what—if anything—to teach that afternoon, given that it was a state holiday. Nell told me the girls would be perfectly happy if I did not teach at all, given how well they were playing together at the moment. For her part, Nell had simply written out our older daughter’s schoolwork schedule.

April 20

I deliberated briefly, considering three possibilities:

  1. Watch episode five of Jazz: A Film by Ken Burns, as I had planned
  2. Skip class entirely
  3. Switch days: read for less than an hour from Chapter 1 of the book I am writing on Monday and watch Jazz on Tuesday

I ultimately settled upon choice #3. After spending 45 minutes having my quiet time with Nell, I finally got out of bed…and saw dried blood on the bottom sheet where my feet had just been. Examining my feet, I discovered that I had bled from the back of my right ankle during the night. Moreover, when I finally went downstairs around 3:15 pm, I saw a spot of dried blood on the white sofa where my feet would have been as I stretched out on it.

Here is what I think happened.

A combination of dry skin and chafing from wearing topsiders without socks—my right foot takes the brunt of my daily cavorting in the backyard with our golden retriever Ruby—had left the back of my right ankle raw. While I was on the sofa, something landed on my ankle, and I shook my leg to flick it off. I do not think I was bitten—there is no swelling or itching. Rather, I think I scraped the raw spot over a rough spot on the sofa, making it bleed.

Meanwhile, when I wandered into the classroom, I saw that our younger had been conducting her own classes:

No holiday on the white board

At 3:35 pm, the girls and I settled into our places in the classroom. After briefly reviewing the adventures of my paternal grandfather Morris Berger, our older daughter began to read about my paternal grandmother’s family—the Ceasars, captured beautifully in this photograph, perhaps taken on my grandmother Rae’s 1st birthday:

Ceasar family c 1903

About six pages in, our older daughter came to this passage.

It is Jewish custom to name a new child after someone recently deceased, such as a grandparent or great-grandparent, and it is Ashkenazic Jewish tradition not to name a new child after someone still living. The best explanation of this tradition is that “…it is a merit for a deceased person to have a descendant (or other relative) named after him or her. If the name is given while its bearer is still alive, this will no longer be possible (in the same family) after that person’s passing.[i]

Furthermore,

…it is believed that the soul of the loved one lives on in the child who now bears his or her name. Indeed, learning about the persons for whom they are named is an excellent way for children to identify with the history of their own Jewish families and, by extension, with the history of the whole Jewish people. Some parents even add these personal explanations to the birth ceremonies for their children.[ii]

While I have never questioned using these draft chapters as way to teach history, Judaism and the nature of justice, inter alia, this external validation was still rewarding.

But our younger daughter had her own thoughts, which she politely raised her hand to share:

  • “Spirits cannot enter a different body once they are, you know, dead.”
  • “Perhaps this is why some people claim to have experienced past lives.”

Rather than point out these are contradictory ideas—unless I misinterpreted what she said—I chose not to go down the metaphor-vs-literal rabbit hole, Instead, I reminded all of us for whom each of us was named, spending a few moments with my regret that I will never meet the man for whom I am named—my paternal grandfather Moshe ben David Laib, later Morris Berger.

At this point, we were only a few pages away from the end of the chapter, so I simply read them aloud myself. As much as our older daughter loves to read, neither daughter objected. Within a few paragraphs, we reached a brief discussion of b’rit milah, the Jewish ritual of circumcising the male penis at eight days of age.

There were grimaces and grunts of disgust as I explained what this entailed. Reading a few more sentences, meanwhile, led our older daughter to exclaim, “You tell them what day your circumcision was?!?”

Well, I replied, they could easily figure it out for themselves—which is not technically true, since I was circumcised at 10 days of age, most likely because October 8, 1966 was a Saturday—the Jewish day of rest. And then it was Sunday…so why not do it on Monday.

I, for one, would not have raised any objections.

Two pages later, we finished the chapter. It was 4:06 pm, and I dismissed class for the day (“Wait, that’s it?”). After washing the dishes and wiping down the kitchen counters, I took Ruby into the backyard for our exercise ritual. To do so, I had to remove some large packages out of the way. One of them turned out to be more SodaStream canisters.

The other had “SNACKS” written on it in bold letters, along with multiple stamps of “Frito-Lay.” When Nell saw it a short time later, she said with some chagrin: “This is what happens when you buy food [online] when there are no salty crunchy snacks in the house.” Indeed, the box was filled with small bags of four varieties of Lays potato chips.

By 9 pm, I had already eaten two of them, with plans to eat more.

Dinner, meanwhile, was leftovers of pizza and lasagna. As Nell was pulling this together, we were talking in the kitchen, and somehow “Be My Baby” by The Ronettes came up. I may have been singing the tune, having bought it on iTunes the night before. In the few weeks I have been teaching the history of rock and roll, I have dropped something like 80 bucks on 56 new songs.

Nell told me how she will always remember the song: as the soundtrack to the moment fans of Moonlighting fans like us had been anticipating for two years. When I mentioned I planned to put the song on the annual birthday mix I was preparing for our oldest daughter, she said, “Well, maybe don’t tell her that part.”

**********

After falling asleep on the white sofa sometime after 5:30 am on Tuesday, April 21, 2020, I awoke to Ruby crying in her crate. As with her dinner, she thinks she only gets her breakfast if she begs for it. A few minutes later, Nell walked downstairs; to my groggy query, she told me it was 7:45 am. I got off the sofa, stretched for 20 seconds, rinsed out and put my empty kefir glass in the dishwasher, kissed my wife, then went back upstairs—where I promptly fell back asleep.

At 1 pm, I awoke to my iPhone alarm; I then turned it off, resetting it to 1 pm again. Maybe 15 minutes later, Nell came in with my first mug of coffee. As she pulled up the black shades, I saw it was a gray and rainy morning; in fact, I had to rescue one of our now-empty blue recycling bins from the street. Once Nell was settled in bed next to me, and I had sufficiently awakened, she told me Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker had ordered all schools in the Commonwealth closed through the end of the 2019-20 school year. We were expecting this announcement—in fact, we were surprised it had not come sooner.

The question Nell and I face now is when—or if—she and our daughters, including the four-legged one, make their way to Martha’s Vineyard, where they would stay through the end of the summer. When Brookline schools first closed, our initial plan was to home school for two weeks, after which Nell and the girls would go to the Vineyard to ride out the COVID-19 pandemic. However, it has so reduced travel to the islands, the Steamship Authority expects to run out of money by May 31 without assistance from the Baker Administration.

The fear, then, is they would be trapped on the island for months, which nobody wants. For my part, while I would certainly miss my family, I would also welcome that block of weeks—even months—in which to complete a final draft of my book.

As Rachel Maddow would say, watch this space.

Meanwhile, this sequence of three headlines–the first I saw–on Taegan Goddard’s Political Wire elicited an “Oh, for f*ck’s sake” from me:

  • Barr Will Consider Legal Action Against Governors
  • Study Finds More Deaths from Drug Trump Touted
  • Kentucky Lawmaker Charged With Strangulation

When I went downstairs around 2:45 pm, I saw Nell had drawn up our younger daughter’s school schedule for the week:

April 21

Less than 15 minutes later, the girls and I settled into the living room to watch Episode 5 of Jazz: A Film by Ken Burns; it was only 87 minutes long, so class was dismissed at 4:42 pm. At one point, when the various commentators were discussing Glenn Miller, I paused to explain “damning with faint praise.”

Our younger daughter did have one of her should-be-patented “Ohhhh!” moments. In the segment “On the Road,” we learn how one swing band would cram 10 into a touring car, their instruments in an attached trailer. Confused, said daughter asked, “Why couldn’t they simply take turns driving the car while everyone else rode in the carriage? They could then put their instruments in the car.” Her sister and I started to explain there were no windows in the trailer—until we realized she was picturing a modern-day camper. Once we explained the difference, the light went on—and out came the “Ohhhhh!”

Hey, she was clearing paying attention, and that is all I can ask.

Until next time…please stay safe and healthy…

[i] http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/1158837/jewish/The-Laws-of-Jewish-Names.htm. Accessed September 16, 2017.

[ii] http://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/naming-children/ Accessed September 16, 2017.

Dispatches from Brookline: Home Schooling and Social Distancing XII

I have described elsewhere how my wife Nell, our two daughters—one in 4th grade and one in 6th grade—and I were already coping with social distancing and the closure of the public schools in Brookline, Massachusetts until at least May 4, 2020. Besides staying inside as much as possible, we converted our dining room into a functioning classroom complete with workbooks, flip charts and a very popular white board.

**********

Five weeks into our mandated isolation, we have settled into a helpful weekday routine. Nell is awake by 8 am or so to let our nearly-six-year-old golden retriever Ruby out of her crate—where she prefers to sleep—so she can frantically inhale breakfast out of her green ceramic bowl. Nell then takes Ruby out for the first time then gets our daughters out of bed and pointed in the direction of breakfast. Morning class starts at 9 am and runs until noon or so.

Once they have eaten lunch, our daughters are free until sometime after 2:30 pm—meaning they retreat to their respective bedrooms either to catch up with friends electronically or to spend time on various electronic devices. If the weather is nice enough, Nell sends them outside; our older daughter is perfectly happy to go for multi-mile runs, while her younger sister will reluctantly spend time on one of our three porches.

Around 1 pm—just as the alarm on my iPhone goes off for the first time—Nell flicks the switch on my coffee maker, which I set up the night before to make exactly eight cups of a half-caffeinated blend; for her own initial caffeine fix, my wife chooses between her Keurig machine, blue and white ceramic tea pot, and espresso pot. Once my coffee maker beeps its completion, she pours some into my navy-blue Yale mug and the rest into my daily-washed L.L. Bean thermos. She brings the mug of coffee upstairs and places it atop the light brown three-drawer Ikea chest I use as a bedside table.

I thank her, groggily. On rare afternoons I rouse myself immediately, but most mornings I doze off for a short time. By 1:30, though, I have generally completed my ablutions and gotten back in bed to check my iPhone. This also the hour each day Nell and I have to ourselves to converse as adults. After flicking through—and mostly deleting—my e-mail, I turn to Taegan Goddard’s Political Wire to read about the latest mischegoss, political and otherwise. I generally read the stories aloud; it is one of our inside—jokes is not quite the right word—that for members-only stories (I happily pay the nominal subscription fee), I lean over to tap her on the shoulder, saying in my best stage whisper, “This piece is only available to Political Wire members.” To which she responds, “Oh, thank God.”

While I intend to start my class at 2:30 pm, by the time I finish Political Wire, check the home page of FiveThirtyEight.com, the latest polls, my website and Twitter (“OK, who is yelling at me now?”), it is usually at least 2:15 pm. I shower and put on a pair of light tan or brown khakis and a button-down shirt, also from L.L. Bean, or a polo shirt if it is warmer; I need to exude some modicum of authority while teaching our hormonal pre-teen daughters.

Downstairs, I tidy the kitchen and living room a bit before having my, umm, breakfast—some form of whole grain cereal with a glass of orange juice and any leftover fruit smoothie Nell may have made. “A bit” means I gather every dirty mug, glass, dish and eating utensil—as well as the pot(s) and/or ceramic spoon rest on which used teabags get placed—and put them in the sink to wash later. I usually wipe down the kitchen counters as well.

Pouring a second cup of coffee from the thermos, I start to gather our daughters into either the living room or the “classroom.” Meanwhile, Nell retreats to our bedroom for some peace and quiet. When she is not napping, she watches videos on her iPhone. One such video teaches how to cut male heads of hair; indeed, she has been eyeing the ever-shaggier mass of curls above my neck the way a butcher eyes a large rack of ribs.

Around 4 pm, Ruby—who has been chilling with Nell—comes padding downstairs to begin to alert us to her impending 5 pm supper. If she is genuinely frantic, though, I call a short break to take her into the backyard. “Daddy” class is generally over between 4:30 and 5:30, after which I feed Ruby if necessary, then take her—and me—for a proper play in the backyard.

This has become my daily “exercise” routine. To make the repeated throwing of a small stick interesting to me, I try to throw it underhand so that it loops over a branch some 15 feet above the ground extending some ten feet over the yard, maybe 20 feet from where I stand. Complicating these throws are smaller branches growing around this thicker branch. Ruby finds this game absolutely delightful, as she gets to scamper up and down the steep, dark-soiled incline that runs from the edge of our yard five or ten feet up to the shared driveway. I try to keep the stick out of this driveway, despite how infrequently cars drive over it, but my aim is not always true.

I make this “shot” maybe 30-40% of the time. When I do not, I poetically berate myself out loud—trying to exercise the brain as well as the body. For example, after missing one recent shot I let out with, “Denied! Dejected. Depressed. Defeated. Determined!” Generally, though, I simply ring a series of changes on “Utterly awful. Tragically sad.”

As I wait for Ruby to return, affectionately emitting variants of the word “dingus” when she momentarily loses track of her stick—though she always gets a hearty “that’s a good girl” when she finally does what she went out there to do, I try to keep from standing still. I jog in place or do jumping jacks or simply jump and down. At times I do a kind of St. Vitus dance of waggling limbs and bobbing head, getting the blood flowing and my heart rate elevated.

After 10 or 15 minutes of this spectacle, Ruby has slowed down enough to head inside, albeit still with some moderate cajoling—and perhaps a toweling of the paws at the bottom of the stairs. This is also accompanied by a kind of reductionist Beat poetry: repetitive reformulations of words like repugnant, repulsive, repellant, reprehensible and reprobate.

Heading into the kitchen to wash my blackened right hand, I begin to tackle the dishes in anticipation of Nell making dinner. Every other day of late, this means loading and starting the dishwasher—always all-but-empty when I finally go to bed, even if that means I wash the dinner dishes by hand. So be it.

By 6:00 pm—6:30 at the latest— I am settled in my office to work for a few hours, while Nell and the girls eat dinner in the living room and watch either Disney Channel or Nickelodeon on our big screen HD television. However, more often lately they eat quickly and disappear back into their respective girl-caves, freeing Nell to watch diy Network.

The understanding is that Nell and I will reconvene in the living room just before 8 pm to watch MSNBC for a few hours (well, not most Fridays), interspersed with the 9 pm bedtime of our younger daughter. “If you are getting up,” Nell will say to me, “will you tell younger-daughter to brush her teeth. Pleasethankyou.” We often use the maximum live program pause of 25 minutes allowed by our television, albeit with the fringe benefit of allowing us to fast forward through commercials.

Between 9:30 and 10:30, Nell takes herself upstairs to bed; I follow shortly after with Ruby to spend some quiet time with her. Once Nell has turned off her bedside lamp, Ruby and I wander back downstairs; she either goes into our older daughter’s bedroom or outside one last time. At which point I get to work completely cleaning the kitchen, including readying my coffee maker for the following afternoon. They say Duke Ellington played orchestras like an instrument: that is how I wield the kitchen sink faucet and its two-setting detachable nozzle. I conduct a symphony in multiple water temperatures, vigorously scrubbing to my own internal beat with sponges and my bare hands, with the dish towels a second movement. Lately, I know not why, I have been using my left hand—which until recently was a kind of decorative appendage—for most of the counter-top scrubbing; maybe I want to rewire my heavily-left-dominant brain. Or maybe I just want to keep things interesting.

Along those lines, my sense of smell has vastly improved of late. Minimal exposure to outdoor allergens is likely the cause; I particularly noticed the opposite effect when I ventured out into the world on Thursday, as you will read below.

With the kitchen now ready for the morning, I check in our older daughter, old enough now to brush her teeth and put herself to bed on her own—and then I grab a jar of Skippy Natural peanut butter, a spoon and a fresh SodaStream in my commandeered green bottle (perhaps adding a squeeze of lemon and/or lime) and settle into my office. There I work until the wee hours of the morning. A long hot soak in a bath or a short hot shower later, I settle onto the white sofa to wind down with informative-yet-entertaining YouTube videos on our television. Drifting off to sleep for a brief time, I rise with the dawn—who knew sunrises are as lovely as sunsets—to drag myself upstairs to bed properly.

Rinse. Repeat.

**********

When I awoke on Tuesday, April 14, 2020, I learned a new four-letter word: ants. As has happened in previous springs, we have an infestation. However, as of Friday, they had mostly disappeared. As bad as they are, however—and as itchy as I have been via power of suggestion—this was nothing compared to the revolting infestation of pantry moths I tackled alone one summer nine or ten years ago; they had planted eggs in a basement-stored bin of dog food we still had from our former golden retriever. I still shudder with disgust thinking about it.

Perhaps to escape the ants, our older daughter had gone for a 2+ mile run in the neighborhood that morning. This remembrance of the outside world may have triggered her suppressed cabin fever. Otherwise, I cannot explain the madness about to befall us.

Tuesday is “family history” day, so we read aloud from completed chapters of the book I am writing. On this particular day, I began by tracing the history of the idea of the book, establishing inexorable chains of historic events running in both directions as one uncovers more—and more accurate–information.

Film noir personal journey

At some point, I noted my father’s time as a member of Philadelphia’s La Fayette Lodge No. 73, Free and Accepted Masons. This triggered something in our older daughter, as she yelled something about the Illuminati then drew this:

Illuminati

Once I dealt with this marginally-relevant interjection, our younger daughter read aloud the first page-plus of Chapter 1. Clearly, she and her older sister—who LOVES to read—have been immersed in The Hunger Games franchise lately, because the latter kept saying, “I volunteer as tribute” to read.

Meanwhile, I do not remember what set that same daughter on this path, but the next thing we knew she was telling her younger sister, in a grating cartoonish voice, “I baked you a pie!”

I baked u a pie

This was only the beginning, though.

When it was our older daughter’s turn to read, she calmed down and read. At one point, however, she misread the first name of my paternal grandfather Morris as “murple,” and it was as though someone had flicked the crazy switch.

It is possible she got this nonsense word from an episode of her beloved The Amazing World of Gumball. Whatever its source, for the next few days, she could not stop herself from loudly proclaiming the following ditty in the same cartoonish voice,

I baked you a pie!

My my my!

You did?!? What flavor is it?

Murpleberry!

Are there any other ingredients?

Yes, the sweet dreams of the children of Santa Claus!

I honestly thought it was going to be the “children of Saturn” the first time she regaled us. According to Nell, she has since used the variant “sweet tears.”

Somehow, we made it through the pages I wanted to read and adjourned for the day, but not before our older daughter had scrawled “I SEE YOU” in bright red letters on a piece of three-hole notepaper for her younger sister.

I had planned to eat leftover beef stew for dinner, but Nell threw me a curve by taking the bechamel she had made the previous day, adding what remained of our shredded cheese, and pouring it over cooked whole wheat penne. I could not stop eating this faux macaroni and cheese out of its pot, it was that delicious. Later, though, I did heat up some beef stew and eat it over some of the cooked penne left out of the pot.

You see why I need to keep jumping up and down in the backyard every afternoon.

**********

On the morning of Wednesday, April 15, 2020—the day our stimulus payment landed in my checking account—our younger daughter inadvertently missed two online meetings of her 4th grade class. When I came downstairs that afternoon, she calmly told me what had happened before bursting into tears; what I quickly realized was that thought she would be in trouble with me.

She was not remotely in trouble with me, which I made very clear to her.

Once “Daddy” school began on Wednesday, April 15, 2020, we settled into the living room to watch Episode 4 of Jazz: A Film by Ken Burns, which broadly covers the years 1929 through 1934. At one point, I paused the program to explain the stock market crash of 1929 as best I could.

Otherwise, we watched in companionable silence—until about halfway through the nearly-two-hour-long episode. I forget what set our older daughter going again—perhaps it was her joyous cries of “Kashi” at the snack she had just obtained from the kitchen. At any rate, from the blue sofa, where her younger sister was snuggled under a comforter, I heard, “At least she didn’t offer to bake a pie.”

Really, kid, really?!?

And with that we once again tumbled down the murpleberry pie rabbit hole…though we did manage to complete the episode. Shortly after this, we received official notice from the Town of Brookline that protective masks are now required any time we leave our homes.

Dinner that night was leftovers, with me eating one of the two cauliflower crust frozen margarita pizzas I had purchased at CVS a few weeks earlier. They are tasty enough when you eat them, but the aftertaste is nasty.

**********

When I came downstairs on Thursday, April 16, 2020, I was a bit confused what day of the month it was; Nell had not been sure if it was the 16th or the 17th, so she left out the second digit, neglecting to add it later.

InkedApril 16_LI

The girls and I settled in the living room to finish watching Border Incident, which we had begun the previous Thursday. After its gruesome finale, I showed them the opening and closing scenes—the latter featuring some of the most striking chiaroscuro lighting I have ever seen—of He Walked By Night. At the start of these final scenes, the main character—and villain—has a small dog in the apartment in which he hides from the police. Our daughters were frankly more concerned with the fate of the dog than of its owner, even as they kind of wanted him to escape. He does not; it is unclear what becomes of his dog.

My plan then was to use a darkened room to experiment with photographing persons and things, comparing the traditional three-light schema—key (front), back and fill (side)—to the sparer cinematography often associated with the classic era of film noir. However, at that time of day—and it was a sunny day—it was not possible to make any room sufficiently dark, so we will try another time. Instead, we returned to the living room to watch the opening scenes of the Weegee-based 1992 film The Public Eye.

At that point—shortly after 4 pm, I believe—I was prepared to dismiss class for the day, given how long Wednesday’s class had been and how long I anticipated Friday’s class would be. Our younger daughter actually wanted to continue watching the film, but her older sister indecisively hemmed and hawed for a few minutes. Once I made clear class was no longer in session, though, she beat a hasty retreat into her bedroom.

As much as her younger sister enjoyed the film, meanwhile, once I pointed out Stanley Tucci, then a relative unknown, who plays a major role in The Hunger Games films, she became distracted by her love of the series; she has been falling asleep many recent nights listening to Audible recordings of the books. That was my cue to dismiss class for the day.

I then girded myself to drive to our local CVS to pick up refills of two of my four prescription medicines. It feels weird to put on socks these days, let alone a face mask and clean white rubber gloves, but I did so. I moved Nell’s Pilot onto the street before driving away in my Accord—this way both cars were started at least once this week.

Earlier that day, Nell had told me how many items were NOT available from the Wegman’s online shopping service, with cheese and breakfast cereals among the most notable. Thus, when I arrived at CVS, I hopefully looked through the refrigerated section—no cheese of any kind. I did grab a family-sized box of Honey Nut Cheerios…as well as three flavors of Haagen Dazs ice cream (butter pecan, dulce de leche, strawberry); one bag each of Doritos, Fritos and Harvest Cheddar Sun Chips; and a package of Fig Newtons. I generally try to limit my intake of junk foods, but these are not normal times. Plus, I get to jump up and down in the backyard nearly every day…have I mentioned that?

Tossing some non-food items into my overflowing plastic basket, I got in the line, separated six feet from each other patron, for the prescription counter; I am convinced strips of blue tape will be the future symbol of this era. Two white plastic folding tables blocked direct access to the counter: the card-swipe machines sat atop the tables. When it was my turn, though, I was only permitted to pay for my prescriptions—which, thanks to good health insurance, only cost $1.18 in total—there. I paid for the remainder of my items at the storefront registers and left.

Briefly debating with myself, I decided to brave our small local Star Market. As I parked along the side of the building, I noticed an array of orange traffic cones and those ubiquitous strips snaking away from the main entrance. However, nobody stopped me as I walked into the relatively-empty store. I found it well-stocked with cheese and cereals, so I purchased a wide variety of the former and two of the latter.

When I arrived home, marveling at how few cars were on the road at what used to be called “rush hour”—and having been heartbroken driving by a bar and restaurant owned by friends—Nell set to work washing the outside of nearly everything I had purchased. She repeated this process at 6:45 or so when our Wegman’s order arrived—26 plastic bags filled with varying degrees of skill.

For dinner, Nell made use of some salad greens about to rot and to prepare a delicious turkey taco salad; our food-contrarian young daughter had mini-burritos with melted cheese. Then, after the evening routine I detailed above, I completed the PowerPoint slides I needed to teach the history of folk rock Friday afternoon. This task took me until 3:00 am, after which I folded the laundry which had again accumulated on the blue sofa.

Knowing I needed to be awake at 9 am for our younger daughter’s virtual state-mandated annual Individual Enrichment Plan meeting, I sacked out on the freshly-laundered cushions of the white living room sofa and went to sleep.

I did not bother to set the alarm on my iPhone.

**********

I first stirred just after 8 am, when Nell awoke and fed Ruby. At 8:29 am, Nell took Ruby out for a walk. Exactly one minute later, the alarm on the iPhone Nell had left on the classroom table, went off…loudly.

That was my cue to go upstairs to bed until my presence was required, first turning off Nell’s alarm. At 8:57 am, Nell woke me up with a start, and I wandered sleepily downstairs, hoping this would not be a video meeting.

It was…but because other people could only hear Nell if she plugged her headphones into her laptop, I became a proxy participant only. I was perfectly content to sit on the white sofa—Nell sat on the blue one—and fiddle with a Rubik’s cube. At one point, I shuffled into the kitchen to replenish my water—it seemed foolish to drink coffee then. As I returned, not realizing Nell’s microphone was on, I belched.

Loudly.

Oops…sorry

The meeting went well, meanwhile, ending just over an hour after it began. Our younger daughter elicited all manner of deserved praise for her sunny disposition and hard work, and it was agreed she no longer required occupational therapy. Parental obligation behind me, I put myself to bed for real. Nell awoke me at 2 pm, so class did not begin until 3:16

Before presenting the 220 slides—many one slide broken into seven or eight slides to maintain flow—I sketched out how rock and roll, infused by musical genre or cultural influence to create each branch, rapidly expanded after 1964.

Rock and roll branches

Rock matures

Folk Rock

Early in the presentation, I had to reprimand our daughters for discussing The Hunger Games rather than pay attention to their loving, hard-working father. I appreciate that by Friday afternoon, it is hard to focus…but, c’mon The Byrds were freaking awesome!

Here are highlights of their reactions:

  • They were disturbed by how facially-hirsute The Beatles—“They used to be so cute!”—became in the late 1960s
  • The gyrations of R.E.M. band members in the “Wolves, Lower” video—an example of a later band heavily influenced by The Byrds—disturbed them.
  • They were quite taken by the young Joni Mitchell—finally, a woman! In fact, they were riveted by this video.
  • Our older daughter reacted positively to “The Sound of Silence”: “I know this song!”
  • They reacted to The Graduate—which both daughters thought sounded like the title to a horror fil—with “Who’s Dustin Hoffman?”
  • That same daughter decided Neil Young was pretty unpleasant. Profound influence aside, I agree: he just always seems to be angry about something.
  • She also liked “Marrakesh Express

As I was teaching, meanwhile, our older daughter was making herself hysterical “drawing” family members with her eyes closed:

Drawing 1 April 17

Drawing 2 April 17

Drawing 3 April 17

It took over two hours, but shortly after 5:30 pm class was dismissed—bringing week five of home schooling to an end.

For dinner, Nell decided we should lay off meat for a few days, so she made a mouth-watering asparagus and green pea risotto. At 8:30, we settled onto the white sofa to watch episodes three and four of season three of Broadchurch.

And that was that.

Until next time…please stay safe and healthy…

Dispatches from Brookline: Home Schooling and Social Distancing XI

I have described elsewhere how my wife Nell, our two daughters—one in 4th grade and one in 6th grade—and I were already coping with social distancing and the closure of the public schools in Brookline, Massachusetts until at least May 4, 2020. Besides staying inside as much as possible, we converted our dining room into a functioning classroom complete with workbooks, flip charts and a very popular white board.

**********

I have no further news about my older, severely mentally-impaired sister Mindy, who tested positive for the novel coronavirus last week. Meanwhile, Nell’s mother Sarah has not yet tested positive, despite an outbreak in the critical care unit of her senior living facility, where she has been living since a bad fall last November.

In January, she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, requiring Nell and me to clear out the bungalow in which she has lived since July 2013 by February 29. We managed that feat with hours to spare, in no small part due to the prior efforts of one of Nell’s first cousins. We relied heavily upon a storage unit we have rented as long as Sarah has been living in that bungalow. Nonetheless, a load of my mother-in-law’s furniture and belongings now resides in our half of a fairly spacious basement.

And it was into this teetering maze of tables, bookcases, boxes and storage bins I found myself venturing late on the afternoon of Saturday, April 11, 2020. Just two nights earlier, I had written a long e-mail to my maternal aunt and her two children in which I had neglected to wish them Chag Sameach for the second night of Pesach.

It was thus no small irony that what I—a Jewish-raised atheist—sought in the basement was the second of a pair of decorative Easter baskets Nell—an Episcopalian-raised agnostic—needed for the following morning. I was also in search of empty plastic eggs, which I saw almost immediately after insinuating myself into a narrow opening between a dining room table and a bookcase. And while an exhaustive search did not turn up the specific basket I sought—I did find an acceptable substitute—I happened upon two bags of paper grass, one purple and one green.

This was all very satisfying, even if I normally pay little attention to how Nell and the girls celebrate Easter. However, a short time later, as I was headed upstairs for some reason, our younger daughter came bounding into the living room excitedly proclaiming her anticipation of the following morning.

Perhaps it was because I was still irritated by President Donald Trump’s callous “HAPPY GOOD FRIDAY!” the previous day, even if I have no dog in this fight. At any rate, I demanded to know if our younger daughter, who is on the cusp between accepting and rejecting such entities as the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus, even knew what was commemorated on Easter Sunday. She actually did, it would turn later, but in the moment was unable to retrieve that information.

And when Nell also hesitated, it fell upon me—or so I thought in that inexplicable moment of prickly self-righteousness—to tell my version of the Biblical story of what happened to the body of Jesus two days after his crucifixion. To her credit, Nell then admirably filled in the gaps of my story, though she insisted on referring to Tetrarch Herod as a pharaoh. And that led us down a further rabbit hole of discord, which Nell and I then carried upstairs then back down into the kitchen. She berated me for saying our younger was not allowed to celebrate Easter unless she knew its backstory, to which I indignantly retorted I only said she should know it, not that she was disallowed.

The background music for this ridiculous contretemps was the movie Nell had turned to on Turner Classic Movies. There are a handful of movies I have essentially memorized–The Maltese Falcon, L.A. Confidential, a few Marx Brothers films–but it is likely the first one I learned this way was Peter Bogdanovich’s 1972 masterpiece What’s Up Doc?. I could not help but recited the dialogue even as we were having our heated discussion. Such is the nature of good art.

But as is usually the case with the regular dust-ups between me and our younger daughter, it was over almost as soon as it had begun—with some tears and an apologetic father.

Well, except for one karmic postscript.

After Nell and I resolved our own quarrel, I took our golden retriever Ruby out for a needed visit to the backyard. We walked out our front door, down a few wooden steps to the sidewalk, then right to the edge of the driveway. Here, Ruby took off like a shot towards the backyard which slopes down from the driveway; I scampered after her. As I did, something small and furry raced by me in the other direction.

It was a small brown bunny.

Which I promptly relayed to Nell and our daughters with the winking addendum, “Make of this what you will,” which especially amused our younger daughter.

Soon after that, Nell and I settled down to watch a movie; I brought with me some of the same brownies as the night before. We had watched One Crazy Summer as a family the previous Saturday night, which got Nell and me talking about the relationship between Demi Moore and her ex-husband Bruce Willis. Which is why I recommended—it was my turn following Nell’s suggestion of Broadchurch—the 1991 crime thriller Mortal Thoughts.

However, once I told Nell how horrible Willis’ character is in the film, she hesitated a moment; he will always be David Addison to her. And the violent early scenes almost put her off as well. Still, she persisted, and I was rewarded with a “that was better than I expected” when it was over. I observed we had just watched one of two movies released in the first half of the 1990s, the other being Pulp Fiction, to feature both Willis and Harvey Keitel—but never in the same scene.

Once Nell and the girls had gone to sleep, and I had put in a few hours preparing many of the PowerPoint slides for Monday’s “history of rock and roll” class, I was inspired to watch a film which has likely ascended into my top 10 favorites, and which shares a key feature (which I will not spoil) with Mortal Thoughts: The Usual Suspects. Bryan Singer’s 1995 masterpiece gets better every time I see it.

By the time I awoke on Sunday, the Easter celebration had already ended, though our younger daughter has yet to find two of her stuffed plastic eggs. The classroom table was laden with numerous sizes and colors of chocolate eggs and one or two unwrapped chocolate bunnies when I finally went downstairs.

Nell was preparing to cook a large, delectable ham and a bundle of asparagus, much to my delight. First, however, I had committed myself to walking down the hill to a small local grocery store for a handful of dairy items I deemed necessary.

Thus, once I had completed the meal I call “breakfast,” I put on socks, a navy-blue windbreaker and my docksiders—along with one of the yellow and white cloth masks, complete with elastic bands, one of our downstairs neighbor shad sewn for us. In my shirt pocket were two thin white rubber gloves. I was carrying two of the white plastic shopping bags I had been given at a nearby Star Market a few weeks earlier.

I was about halfway down the hill, my sinuses already rebelling against the damp weather and the spring pollen floating in the air, when I realized I had neglected to take my wallet—or any of the other items I routinely put in my pockets before going anywhere; my Swiss army knife, Burt’s Bees lip balm, a pen and pocket-sized pack of tissues. At least I had my keys.

This is how out of practice at going to stores we have become.

I trudged back up the hill, retrieved the forgotten items then walked back down to the store. All but one of the few other customers wore masks as well. Somewhere in my journey, I had lost one of the rubber gloves, so I only used one gloved hand to pick up the few items I needed. Walking to the one open register, I saw blue strips of tape marking six feet gaps on the floor; a large clear thick plastic sheet was suspended in front of both registers.

When it was my turn to pay, I began to put my blue shopping basket onto the counter. “No, you can’t do that,” said the young woman in the gray Mount Washington sweatshirt standing behind the register. “Sorry,” I said, taking each item out of the basket with my gloved right hand, after which I put the basket on the floor a bit further away. I also bagged my groceries.

Once I had lugged those groceries up the hill and into the kitchen, I used a Clorox wipe to “disinfect” each item.  I then put my windbreaker through the neck of a deck chair on the porch off of my office to air out, while I stripped and took my second hot shower of the day. But not before I had distractedly scratched the stubble on my jaw my gloved hand, because, you know.

The four of us gathered for dinner in the living room not long afterward. As we ate, we watched the latest Buzzfeed Unsolved true crime video from “the boys”: the 1954 murder of Marilyn Sheppard. Given the relative youth of the episode’s hosts, I was not that surprised they nelglected to mention the enormously popular television series loosely based upon the case, The Fugitive. And that led me to explain why Philadelphia-born noir writer David Goodis had sued the producers of the series.

A short time later, after I had made significant headway in my nightly kitchen cleaning, Nell and I settled back in the living room to watch the first two episodes of the third and final season of Broadchurch. The epilogue to this was my finally finishing my PowerPoint slides just after 3:30 am.

**********

When I awoke—slowly, sluggishly, somnambulantly—on Monday, April 13, 2020, a violent rainstorm was blowing outside our bedroom porch doors. In fact, the wind blowing through the glass doors rattling the black, pull-down shade so that the wooden grip at its bottom knocked against the door had been waking me on and off for some time.

I finally roused myself, though, showered, dressed and made my way downstairs.

This is what greeted me in the classroom:

April 13

And on the always-popular white board, Nell had drawn this:

Its Monday Gerald and Piggy

I was running late, so I wanted to gather our two daughters quickly enough to begin class at 3:00 pm. Wandering into my office to collect my desktop computer, I noticed the remains of our younger daughter’s breakfast and her Harry Potter plastic wand on my desk. She now uses my office—to participate in online meetings with her fourth-grade teacher—because it is quiet once the door is closed.

This is fine with me, so long as she cleans up after herself, which she usually does; on this day, she was even more scattered than usual. Mildly miffed, I yelled out for her. When she did not respond, I marched over to her closed bedroom door and knocked rather vigorously on it. Opening the door, I pointedly told her what was on my desk. Apologetic, she scurried into my office to retrieve her dishes—though she still forgot her wand.

I was not actually that upset, but a short time later, as we were about to begin class, she burst into tears. Nell and I were standing in the kitchen with her, and we tried to puzzle out why she was suddenly so upset. She usually does not know in those moments, though I suspect I startled her with my loud door rapping; she reacts poorly to such things—and the loud weather did not help.

But these once again subsided quickly, and she and her older sister settled into the classroom to see this:

British Invasion

British Invasion

We worked through the slides, covering Beatlemania, the early days of The Rolling Stones and The Who, and a few other key British Invasion bands in good time, finishing around 4:45 pm. I did my best to “explain” the first of these, to which our older daughter sniffed, “They’re not that cute.” Our younger daughter was amused by the change from the “mod” Who of 1964 to the more outlandish Who of 1969–even if she is now convinced Animal was actually the Who’s drummer. And the only song our older daughter especially liked was The Animals’ “The House of the Rising Sun.”

Well, there had been one unexpected—and joyful—break in my presentation. The only YouTube video I had not been able to link to a slide was for Devo’s surrealist cover of The Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” When I came to that point in the presentation, I went to the URL I had saved. As I was fussed with my mouse to make the video full screen, the video for A-ha’s “Take On Me” somehow began to play.

This is our older daughter’s often-proclaimed favorite song, so I promised we could play it once the Devo video—which I played, along with Patti Smith’s seminal cover of Them’s “Gloria,” to demonstrate the durability of certain iconic rock songs—had ended. At which point our older daughter bounced out of her chair, crying, “I need some room to floss!”

Following both versions of “Gloria—our daughters were not quite sure what to make of Smith, with our younger daughter remarking, “It seems obvious to me stuff happened to her in her childhood”—class was dismissed.

This was my chance to, at long last, remove the slowly-discoloring wedge of lime from the green SodaStream I have commandeered as my own. It took a series of knives of various sizes, a long metal skewer and some very strong fingers to complete the task. I did not replace the soggy mess I removed with a fresh lime wedge, or even a lemon wedge.

The highlight of the rest of the evening was the mouthwatering faux croque monsieur, sans fried egg, Nell cooked for each of us from some leftover ham, despite earlier protestations she was too lazy to make a bechamel and our dangerously-low quantity of cheese. I washed mine down—albeit a few hours later—with a can of Wolfgang Puck’s delicious basil tomato bisque.

Sheltering in place with my beloved wife and daughters has its perks.

Until next time…please stay safe and healthy…

Dispatches from Brookline: Home Schooling and Social Distancing X

I have described elsewhere how my wife Nell, our two daughters—one in 4th grade and one in 6th grade—and I were already coping with social distancing and the closure of the public schools in Brookline, Massachusetts until at least May 4, 2020. Besides staying inside as much as possible, we converted our dining room into a functioning classroom complete with workbooks, flip charts and a very popular white board.

**********

I neglected to mention—having forgotten all about it—a call I received on Tuesday. One that I received on my iPhone, Nell received on her iPhone, and we received on our landline.

I listened to the voicemail the woman calling had left me and decided it was not urgent.

The same person called me again on the morning of Wednesday, April 8, 2020.

When I went to bed the previous, err, night, I was wicked excited for what I had planned to teach our daughters Wednesday afternoon. And I was still excited when I awoke that, err, morning. Sleepy, but excited.

Once I had gone downstairs, however, I thought I should call back the woman who had called three of our phone numbers four total times in two days before lugging my desktop computer into the classroom.

As I have written elsewhere, my older sister Mindy has had severe mental disabilities since birth. In December 1974, she entered the Woodhaven facility in northeast Philadelphia; she has lived there ever since. I became Mindy’s legal guardian after our mother died in March 2004.

The woman trying so hard to reach me was calling from Woodhaven. I had concluded from her initial voice mail she was simply calling every resident parent and guardian to provide an update on how Woodhaven was dealing with the novel coronavirus pandemic. But her persistence swayed me, and I called her back.

What I learned is that Mindy, who is 58 and has numerous comorbid conditions, has tested positive for the novel coronavirus. For now, her symptoms are fairly mild: elevated fever and runny nose. Nonetheless, they moved Mindy and a number of other residents to an unused residence on the same campus. But as the woman and I discussed, the novel coronavirus is going to sweep through these units like a scythe through wheat; there is little we can do about it. Not to be overly ghoulish, but a very practical part of me is now relieved I purchased a burial plot for my sister more than a decade ago. This was on the advice of multiple interested parties. Still, I was hit hard by the news—it is the closest the pandemic has come to us.

We had already come very close with my mother-in-law, as there is an outbreak of the novel coronavirus in the senior care facility in which she lives. They have already moved her twice to keep her from becoming infected; she loves her current room, which overlooks a garden.

The upshot was that I was less excited when class started some 15 minutes later. We began with my asking if they had heard about United States Senator from Vermont Bernie Sanders ending his bid for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, making former Vice President Joe Biden the de facto nominee. They had, and we had a conversation about the relative ages of Biden and possible vice-presidential nominee picks. Then I told them about their aunt. They took this news in stride; to be fair, they have only spent time with her once.

In fact, at this point, our younger daughter needed to tell me about a “joke” she had inadvertently made that morning watching an episode of Seven Worlds, One Planet; they had finished The Blue Planet the previous week. At one point, narrator David Attenborough had been talking about Colombia before switching to a small island off the coast of China. Looking up then—and having missed the transition—our younger daughter exclaimed, “That’s Colombia?!?” This then became a running joke between the three of them for the rest of the episode.

Once I started to talk about how American music did NOT die following the February 3, 1959 plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens, however, I quickly hit my stride.

Not so sleepy 50s

My simple contention is that, despite a relative period of hibernation for rock and roll, American music actually flourished between February 3, 1959 and the arrival of The Beatles in New York City five years and four days later. It was only 12 years after the fact, and with a blindered, rock-centric view of music, anyone could claim music “died” that day. But in making my arguments the previous Friday afternoon, I rushed my presentation and played no music. So, I created a PowerPoint presentation replete with sample songs for every artist.

The Music Never Died

After listening to songs by the three musicians who died in Clear Lake, Iowa that winter day—with older daughter recalling Holly as “the geeky one” and Nell rocking out to “Chantilly Lace”—I played them one track each from three of the great jazz albums released in 1959: “So What” by Miles Davis, “Take Five” by the Dave Brubeck Quartet and “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” by Charles Mingus. The first and third tunes elicited little response, but our older daughter reacted excitedly to “Take Five”:

“Hey, I’ve heard that song on Donkey Kong!” (She reminded me later this is a level of Mario Kart.)

A few moments later: “Wait…if hearing this song is education, does that meaning playing Donkey Kong is education?”

Sorry, kid, it is not.

We then moved on to developments in popular music. Our older daughter could not get past Roy Orbison’s slicked-back hair to appreciate the effortless clarity of his tenor singing voice. I did get the chance to explain who Dick Clark was watching Bobby Darin perform “Splish Splash” on a companion program to American Bandstand. Our younger daughter then insisted that Dionne Warwick “sounded French” singing “Don’t Make Me Over.” Her older sister and I never did figure out exactly she meant by this.

The remainder of this section of the presentation elicited little comment, although our younger daughter was quite taken with Frankie Valli’s powerful tenor voice.

After a short break, I quickly ran through how the 1950s were not as sleepy as usually portrayed, all the way through the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in November 1963. I am laying the groundwork for a perhaps-vain attempt to explain why The Beatles made such an outsized impact in the United States in 1964.

And then we reviewed three very different artists who began to wake rock and roll from its sleep. I had summarized the formation of The Beach Boys and The Beatles the previous Friday, so I simply played “Surfin’ Safari” and “Please Please Me.” Our older daughter surprised herself a bit by enjoying the former song.

In between, I started to talk about a young Jewish-raised folk singer from Duluth, Minnesota. Just as I was saying he had been born Robert Allen Zimmerman, our older daughter interjected with, “Oh, is he Bob…Dylan?” When I played a clip of “Blowin’ in the Wind,” the same daughter thought he was cute—in no small part because of his tousled hair.

And with that, class was dismissed.

Famished, and having been craving tuna fish salad for a day or two, I made what amounted to a deconstructed cheddar tuna melt—the ultimate comfort food, even if it lacked bacon, tomato and diced celery. That did not stop me from happily consuming one of Nell’s delicious cheeseburgers with sliced onion, lettuce and tomato, as well as the rest of the cheddar-flavored potato chip she had impulsively bought the day before.

After that, pausing Chris Hayes, we gawked at the beauty of the “pink moon.” I quite like that these photographs taken from our upstairs porch are a bit blurry.

Pink moon

Misty-eyed view of Boston

**********

When I went downstairs on Thursday, April 9, 2020 this is what greeted me in the classroom:

April 9

Once again, I schlepped my desktop computer into the classroom. This time it was to show them a set of slides I had prepared for the “What Is Film Noir” adult education course I taught in October 2018:

Cinematography

I focused on the role of what once was called the “lighting cameraman,” the chiaroscuro tabloid photography of Weegee, and the six collaborations between cinematographer John Alton and director Anthony Mann.

We then moved into the living room to watch the 1949 Mann-Alton film Border Incident. I chose this film over the previous year’s He Walked By Night to demonstrate film noir did not always take place in the criminous urban jungle-and that it could feature, in the expert hands of Mann, an almost casual masculine violence. Our older daughter was favorably impressed when a young Ricardo Montalbán appeared on screen, noting his “charisma.”

I could not agree more, kid.

We stopped the film, however, with about 20 minutes left to go—which includes one particularly dark, in every sense, murder scene—because our younger daughter desperately wanted to watch the second Hunger Games film. The latter is 146 minutes long, and the goal was to watch it before Chris Hayes started at 8 pm.

As the film was playing, Nell came into the kitchen to ask if she could make pasta with sauce and turkey meatballs—well just cheese and butter for our tomato-sauce-loathing younger daughter. She asked me because, well, while Nell can cook almost anything brilliantly, I am better at preparing pasta.

Which is how I came to make dinner that night for the first time in weeks. It was merely boxed whole wheat linguine, a jar of Rao’s marinara sauce and frozen Trader Joe’s turkey meatballs, but I always heavily salt the water, simmer the sauce on low heat and gently stir the pasta in the boiling water to keep the strands from sticking together. Some things simply cannot not be rushed.

And, wow, was it good. Nell later came into the kitchen to say, “This is so delicious, I am taking seconds.” She also called me a “rock star” because I had already mostly cleaned the kitchen—the highest compliment I generally pay.

A few hours later, once everyone had gone to bed and the kitchen was completely clean, I sat down to write an e-mail I had been planning to send for months. It was to my maternal aunt and her son and daughter, and it began by apprising them of the health status of Mindy and my mother-in-law. It also finally brought them up-to-date on all I had recently learned about my genetic family—one of whom I met in person last August in Philadelphia—and my aunt’s father’s career with the Philadelphia Police Department.

One reason it had taken so long to write this e-mail was my desire to attach the chapter of the book I am writing that discusses my mother’s ancestry. But I had had yet to incorporate new information I had learned from this same aunt in January into the chapter, complete with validation through sources like Newspapers.com. This I finally began to do Wednesday evening, with a full chapter edit on Thursday.

The editing and e-mail composing took a few hours to complete, during which I needed to put our golden retriever in her crate. As much as I enjoy writing, this was a particularly emotionally draining experience.

And so, of course, I completely forgot to wish them a Chag Sameach–Happy Festival–in honor of the 2nd night of Pesach, or Passover, despite having just looked at black-and-white photographs of my maternal grandfather’s family holding its annual Seder–a meal during which the story of Passover is told in ritualistic fashion–in 1946 and 1953.

**********

When I awoke on Friday, April 10, 2020, I found a voicemail from my maternal aunt on my iPhone. She had read my “captivating” e-mail and was in the middle of reading my chapter, wondering where the information on her mother’s family was. At this point, I literally said, “Keep reading. Keep reading. It is all there” to the voicemail.

Going downstairs a short time later, already running late to start a 2:30 pm class, I found this in the classroom:

April 10

It was thus closer to 3:15 than 3:00 when the three of us settled in the living room to watch Episode 3 of Jazz: A Film by Ken Burns. I prefaced our viewing with a brief summary of the first two episodes. Unlike the previous Monday, though, we watched the episode without rancor or hard feelings. And when we began to hear the story of a clarinet-playing Chicago-born son of Ukrainian-Jewish immigrants named Benjamin David Goodman, I paused the episode to point out the similarities with the family history we have been discussing on Tuesdays. And I also made the mistake of foreshadowing the tragic death of legendary blues singer Bessie Smith, with whom our older daughter was quite taken.

In fact, both daughters have gotten into the flow of the series, even if our younger daughter fell asleep on the blue sofa about halfway through this one. I later learned a proximate cause: she had a fever of 102.2 degrees. Otherwise, she seems generally healthy. We shall see…

About halfway through the episode, we took a short break during which I toasted the last of our whole wheat bagels. Putting in onto a plate with a knife, I grabbed what I thought was opened foil-wrapped brick of cream cheese and took it back to my seat in the living room. As I spread it on my bagel, however, I noticed the consistency was too thin, and it melted almost like butter. It did not taste quite right, either, though it took me a few bites to realize this was not, in fact, cream cheese. I then found an actual brick of cream cheese in the refrigerator, which made all the difference.

Relaying this mistake to Nell later, her response was an alarmed, “What? You ate Crisco?” She had a similar reaction when I brought out from the office the half-full glass of kefir I had been too tired to finish before going to sleep. We will not even talk about the soggy wedge of life that has been floating in my green SodaStream bottle for a few weeks; you can see my bottle in the center background of the first photograph above.

Once the episode had ended, and our younger daughter had awakened, I dismissed class—and week four of home schooling. At this point, her older sister jumped up from her chair and took off for her bedroom, throwing over her shoulder, “See ya! I am off to play LankyBox!”

At that point, it was time to take Ruby out for her evening romp in the backyard, resulting in her second shower in 10 days. A few hours later, I sat down with Nell and a bowl of her delectable beef stew to watch the final two episodes of season two of Broadchurch, the capstone to our first month of sheltering in place. I followed the stew with a tall glass of non-fat milk and a mixed plate of Nell’s homemade dark chocolate brownies–the recipe being from Alton Brown led me to call them Alton-Brownies: one part from the batch she made for the entire family, one part from the batch she made only, with a special, newly-legal type of infused butter, just for her and me.

I cannot think of a better way to end the week than on this high note.

Until next time…please stay safe and healthy…

Dispatches from Brookline: Home Schooling and Social Distancing IX

I have described elsewhere how my wife Nell, our two daughters—one in 4th grade and one in 6th grade—and I were already coping with social distancing and the closure of the public schools in Brookline, Massachusetts until at least April 7, 2020. Besides staying inside as much as possible, we converted our dining room into a functioning classroom complete with workbooks, flip charts and a very popular white board.

**********

Over the past four days, our mostly-tranquil coexistence has shown signs of fraying around the edges. Call it “stir-craziness,” call it “cabin fever,” call it whatever you like—as we entered our fourth week of sheltering in place, our younger daughter was especially sensitive, and I was particularly moody. There is a reason that for two consecutive years of high school Halloween parties I dressed as Hermes—or Mercury, if you prefer the Roman version—the impish, speedy messenger of the gods. Not satisfied merely with portraying an ancient deity, I made wings for my “sandals” out of aluminum foil (I also made a caduceus, but I not recall how). The goal was to imitate silver—as in quicksilver, another word for the element mercury. I was thus a “walking pun,” literally “quick silver;” adding to the word play was my mercurial nature.

Yes, I was that much of a geek in high school. What do you expect from a boy who dressed as Nicolaus Copernicusfor Halloween when he was 10 years old? The portrait from which my mother attempted to fashion a costume showed him wearing what looked a short fur coat, so most of the people handing out candy thought I was a king of some sort. When I explained I was actually a 16th-century Polish astronomer, few, if any, shared my excitement this was the man who revolutionized our understanding of the cosmos by determining the sun was the fixed point (relatively) around which the planets—including, brace yourself medieval minds, the Earth—revolved.

Meanwhile, back in 21st-century Brookline, I must take the bulk of the responsibility for the tension between Nell and me, which did not fully resolve itself until Monday evening. Something Nell told me as I was saying good night to her Friday—which I do before I commence my night routine, along with taking one of my blood pressure medications—threw me for a loop. I reacted poorly, and I can only attribute some of that to barely leaving the apartment for three weeks. It was less what she told me, which did not especially disturb me, than the way she dropped it into the conversation out of the blue as she was preparing to go to sleep. We eventually resolved that issue…for the moment.

Nonetheless, the following afternoon and evening were perfectly innocuous. Earlier that day, Nell had finally successfully colored our younger daughter’s hair—in this case, one side a vibrant red and one side a vivid blue. I once joked our younger daughter was punk, while her older sister was new wave; I may have had the two reversed.

Blue and red all over

When I finally wandered downstairs, I was mildly disappointed Nell had not made pancakes and bacon as she had suggested she would when we were having our back-and-forth the previous night.

Correction—at first, I thought she had made them, but had not saved any for me. I soon realized I was wrong, however, when the small flat pan awaiting my washing skills in the kitchen sink told me she had made crepes instead.

My bad.

A short time later, Nell suggested we order take out for dinner. When I told our younger daughter (hamburger, lettuce, mayonnaise) we were getting food delivered from our favorite local joint, she responded with “Yes!” and a right fist pump. Our older daughter (small super veggie pizza) was more blasé, unlike her sister, father (Greek salad, chicken parmigiana sub) and mother (steak and American cheese with mayonnaise and caramelized onions). Given how many “chips” I have watched characters eat recently on Broadchurch, I added one side order each of French fries and onion rings. Once the food arrived—left on our doorstep by an already-tipped delivery person—Nell promptly put my salad into a bowl, the side orders onto a large white dish, and the hamburger onto a smaller dish out of a not-unreasonable excess of caution.

Deciding it was time for a family movie night—and with Nell rejecting my tentative suggestion of American Graffiti, which I had been thinking about since the girls and I had learned about the early history of rock and roll the day before—we opted instead for a 1980s John Cusack movie, settling quickly on a mutual favorite, One Crazy Summer; the cast alone was worth the free Amazon Prime rental.

Speaking of American Graffiti, I had done some memory interrogating earlier that day. As we watched this 1984 documentary, I paused it to tell the girls Bill Haley and the Comets would get renewed attention in the mid-1970s when an enormously popular sitcom called Happy Days used “Rock Around the Clock” as its opening theme. But when I awoke on Saturday, I suddenly remembered a different theme song. Fearing I had misled our daughters, I did a quick Google search. Apparently, the first season—which I never really watched—did open with the Haley song. And it did increase its popularity, sending it back into the Billboard Top 40.

The rest of the evening passed quietly enough. Our daughters were generally entertained by the film—which takes place on Nantucket, so they recognized shots of Woods Hole, with Nell pointing out actual places on the sister island to Martha’s Vineyard. Even more exciting, however, was the discovery by our younger daughter of a forgotten stash of Christmas-themed Trader Joe’s JoJo’s in one of our kitchen cabinets. If nothing else, we are eating through our food stash, even if I refrained from eating any JoJo’s.

After the film, Nell and I watched episode four of season two of Broadchurch as well as the latest video from the boys, who wanted to know who put Bella in the wych elm. We reasoned we could then watch episodes five and six the next night—which we did—and two the following Friday evening, in lieu of our regular MSNBC weeknight lineup. There is only so much news about COVID-19 we can watch.

In large part, because only our older daughter had ordered pizza the previous evening, Nell again made homemade pizza. We were out of pineapple, so I had pear with my pepperoni. This time the crust was a bit thicker and chewier. Intending it to be a compliment, I said it reminded me of Domino’s; she eventually decided it was not an insult.

And that night, for personal reasons, I became moody and distant when Nell and I had our end-of-night conversation. I later apologized, after my mood brightened working on the next phase of “rock history” slides I plan to show the girls for our Wednesday afternoon class, but the foul mood returned the following day.

**********

When I went downstairs on the afternoon of April 6, 2020, this is what greeted me in the “classroom”:

April 6

I was once again absolutely exhausted, even though I had slept reasonably well. Perhaps it was carryover from our routine temperature-taking; the day before I had registered in the 99’s, even though I rarely go much above 97.5. In this time, it is easy to spin the most innocuous of “symptoms” into something more serious. Throw in my year-round seasonal allergies, and…well, it is a good thing I am not a hypochondriac. Perhaps as a result, I took what was simply Nell forgetting to write out the rest of the day’s classroom schedule as a personal snub.

Meanwhile, our younger daughter was on the verge of tears after some miscommunication with a group of friends. We had to talk it through—our younger daughter inherited my “just bear with me” communication style—for 10 or 15 minutes before we could watch the 106-minute-long Episode 2 of Jazz: A Film By Ken Burns. And that was soon interrupted by Nell insisting they put away their Nintendo switches while we watched.

I did not really care that much, knowing they had watched and enjoyed Phantom Lady under the same circumstances the previous Thursday, and that I am happy to have them draw while I teach in the classroom. Also, I just did not really care that much at that point; I just wanted to watch and enjoy the program with a minimum of fuss.

Nell, however, was having none of it. “Fine, if you do not want to teach them, I can just teach them from 10-12.” That stung, so I rejoined with, “Don’t tell me how to teach!”

To which Nell had the trump card, which she threw over he shoulder at me as she walked up the stairs to record a video for her children’s librarian job:

“Right, what do I know? I only have a Master’s Degree in Elementary Education.”

Damn, she is good.

Feeling chagrined, I then expressed my displeasure to the girls, playing the “Do you know how hard your mother and I are working to blah blah blah yadda yadda yadda?” card. It was manipulative—and slightly hypocritical, given my own temporary indifference—but it kinda worked. Both girls payed closer attention to the episode…and the mood lightened considerably. They even enjoyed my brief pause to explain the Volstead Act.

It took until 5:30 or so to watch the full episode. And I learned that even if we primarily watch a video for our class time, I need to do at least a modicum of actual teaching.

Nell and I started sniping again as she prepared Annie’s shells and cheddar with broccoli for dinner, this time even more intensely; at one point, much against all better judgment, I announced I was going to the grocery store, even though Nell was planning to do a spate of such chores the next day. I eventually relented, and we called a truce to watch MSNBC.

Matters finally came to a head when it was time for Nell to go to sleep that night. I wanted to have it out, so I started to do just that. Nell was hesitant at first—this tension had been building for some time, and she was nervous about what might happen should we pursue the matter—but then she opened up as well. She did take the precaution of locking the bedroom door, so that we could not be interrupted by our still-awake older daughter; indeed, the latter brought her Nintendo switch upstairs during this time. And it was surprisingly easy. We explored all of the ins and outs of the situation, ultimately reaching a mutually-satisfying conclusion. Afterwards, we both felt better than we had in weeks. “Why didn’t we do this much sooner?” we asked, realizing that sometimes you just have to push through those mental and emotional barriers.

And for the first time since we began sheltering in place, neither of us had extremely intense dreams.

**********

When I awoke on Tuesday, April 7, 2020—in a far better frame of mind—a proud Nell told me of her adventures in the outside world. She had gone to our local CVS to collect prescriptions—scrupulously avoiding a trio of teenagers not respecting social distance guidelines—and to a small nearby grocery store for some necessary supplies; it has been getting harder to find an open food delivery window online. Upon arriving home, Nell promptly took a long shower.

Some ninety minutes later, when I went downstairs, this is what greeted me in the “classroom”:

April 7

Dr. Dobby, meanwhile, has moved on to other pursuits, though it is not clear which Stranger Things world he is trying to enter. Like the rest of us, his world has been turned upside down.

Stranger Dobby

And the artwork continues unabated, as this emphatic statement from our older daughter reveals:

ME April 7

To prepare for our return to the adventures of the Berger family in early-20th-century Philadelphia, I sketched this on the white board.

OK, fine. I erased the original drawing before photographing it. This is merely an artist’s rendition of what had so disturbed our daughters with its lack of skill; admittedly, they are much better artists than I will ever be.

Philadelphia sort of

I deliberately did not start the class until just after 3 pm, because I wanted this to be a shorter, more focused session. The second half of Friday’s class had lasted longer than I had planned, while Monday’s class had been rough. Thus, I wanted to give all of us a bit of a break.

We began with a rapid-fire, wholly-improvised review of the history of my beloved Philadelphia. I followed this with a review of how David Louis Berger, born October 15, 1869 in Pryznasz in what is now Poland, had arrived in Philadelphia in May 1899 with his wife Ida and four young children, settling first less than two blocks west of the Delaware River—and one block from his brother-in-law Charles Rugowitz—before moving closer to the Schuylkill River. The two spots are marked with red X’s above.

While this was happening, our younger daughter was drawing a remarkably-good “burger” with lettuce. However, when she then proceeded to highlight it with a penlight for her sister, I lost my cool. “How is this relevant to what we are discussing?” I demanded. She teared up at this—without her Ritalin, it is difficult for her to resist such impulses—which broke my paternal heart. However, we both moved quickly past this interruption with a heartfelt hug, returning to listening to her older sister read about the Berger family in the years between 1913 and 1923, including the tragic and somewhat mysterious death of their great-great-grandfather on October 23, 1919.

Shortly thereafter, we adjourned for the day, with little of note happening after that. Nell simply heated up turkey hot dogs wrapped in crescent rolls for their dinner, while I was content to nibble on various leftovers.

Well, all right, I will need to do something about my hair soon.

Until next time…please stay safe and healthy…

Dispatches from Brookline: Home Schooling and Social Distancing VIII

I have described elsewhere how my wife Nell, our two daughters—one in 4th grade and one in 6th grade—and I were already coping with social distancing and the closure of the public schools in Brookline, Massachusetts until at least April 7, 2020. Besides staying inside as much as possible, we converted our dining room into a functioning classroom complete with workbooks, flip charts and a very popular white board.

**********

When I came downstairs on the afternoon of April 1, 2020, the flip chart had not changed from the previous day because Wednesday has become the morning to chill and watch episodes of The Blue Planet.

In that same vein, our daughters and I began to discuss the history of those two profoundly American art forms: jazz and rock. From 3 pm to 4 pm, we watched the first hour of the first episode of Jazz: A Film by Ken Burns. I had first watched it six years earlier, so I knew how broadly entertaining and informative it could be.

After a 36-minute-break, we reconvened to watch the end of the 87-minute episode. We then moved ahead in time a few decades to watch a short video about “The Godmother of Rock-and-Roll,” Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Once that ended, our older daughter vanished into her pre-teen bedroom. Our younger daughter, however, having burrowed deeply under her dark blue quilt on the blue sofa, wanted to watch something else. And by “something else,” she meant an episode by “the boys,” our nickname for BuzzFeed Unsolved’s Ryan Bergara and Shane Madej. This being a lazy day—as many days are these days—I pulled up the most recent episode, one Nell and I had watched a few nights earlier: the mysterious death of Thelma Todd.

About an hour later, I knocked on her bedroom door to get her attention. When she removed her headphone, I told her in my best deadpan voice her mother and I had just decided we would watch five more hours of Jazz that evening. Before she could complete the indignant protest forming in her throat, I yelled “April Fool’s” in my most absurd voice. I repeated the process with her older sister, who barely deigned to roll her eyes at me.

In reality, what Nell was doing was cooking some exceptionally delicious chicken parmigiana.  I consumed a hearty portion as we watched All In With Chris Hayes. Offered seconds, I hungrily accepted essentially what remained in the casserole dish, leading our younger daughter to observe I do “not know what no means” when it comes to second.

Thanks, kid. Thanks a lot.

For all that, I had to stop eating about 2/3 of the way into my seconds so as not to get sick, though I did finish it over the course of the evening.

By 10:45 pm, I had finished cleaning the kitchen, and I decided to tackle aspects of the living room. First, as I watched the most upbeat segment I have seen on television in weeks, I thoroughly scrubbed our glass coffee table with Windex. Even before our actual dining room table became a centerpiece of our “classroom,” the coffee table had become the predominant dinner-eating surface. Once the coffee table was clean, I turned to the pile of clean laundry on the blue sofa crying out to be folded.

In general, Nell is the laundry maven—she finds great satisfaction in working her chemical magic on piles of dirty clothes using Mrs. Meyer’s detergent and OxyClean. Folding, however, is another matter entirely. I am perfectly happy to fold all shared linen and towels, as well as my own clothes.  Theoretically, she and the girls fold their own clean laundry. In reality, however, their clothes take longer to fold, leading me to step in on occasion.

Turning lemons into lemonade, I pulled out my old VHS copy of the Yello Video Show; we still have a dual VCR/DVD player. The upshot: I may also have done something akin to dancing during the 30 minutes it took me to fold those clothes. I freely admit to singing, but the rest is between me and the living room windows.

Later that night—early that morning—I returned to my computer. For reasons that escape me now, I located the “Sun City” video for on YouTube and watched it a few times. And as it has for more than 30 years, it made me weep silently.

But then it was down to business: deciding which film noir I would screen in class Thursday afternoon. The first question was whether I wanted to zero in on a key author—Cornell Woolrich—or a key cinematographer—John Alton. If the former, would we watch Phantom Lady, Black Angel or Deadline at Dawn. If the latter, would we watch Border Incident or He Walked By Night—or perhaps even Raw Deal?

I eventually made a decision, as you will see.

**********

Perhaps it was all the folding and dancing the evening before. Or perhaps it is my current—some may call it absurd, though as a lifelong night owl who relishes the peace and quiet of the dark night, I refute that description—sleeping schedule:

  • clean the kitchen/take out our golden retriever/take out garbage and recycling
  • work until 3 am or so,
  • soak in a long hot bath or revel in a quick hot shower,
  • take my 5 mg melatonin and over-the-counter sinus medication—I am particularly fond of half doses of CVS brand Severe Allergy and Sinus Headache, though I also like half does of DayQuil combined with a dose of CVS brand chlorpheniramine maleate
  • sack out on the white sofa to watch YouTube videos
  • drowsily turn off television to fall asleep on white sofa
  • wake one or two hours later to wander upstairs to brush my teeth and get in our actual bed

Whatever the reason, I had a more difficult time than usual rousing myself on afternoon of Thursday, April 2, 2020. And when I went downstairs and hour or so later, this is what greeted me in the “classroom”:

April 2

Technically, what I first saw was both of our daughters sitting in their usual classroom seats, attentively waiting for “school” to begin—or perhaps it had already begun? Almost before I could ask Nell why our daughters, who usually require some nominal cajoling to begin their afternoon classes, were already there, she said, “Maybe you should go look for yourself.”

So, I did.

Oh.

Dr Dobby

Our younger daughter was now in stitches; she had been plotting this since my “April Fool’s” prank the night before. The piece of paper in front of “Dr. Dobby,” meanwhile, was written by our older daughter to attest to the pedagogical excellence of my temporary replacement.

Once Dr. Dobby and I had agreed I would teach this particular class, I opened some of the PowerPoint slides I had used to teach an adult and community education film noir course in the fall of 2018. First, I wanted to make the point—using my LISTS and POINTS system—that while film noir certainly peaked between 1944 and 1953 in the United States, it was and is an international film type that continues to this day.

Woolrich April 2

Second, and more important, I presented the tragic life of Cornell George-Hopley Woolrich, who sometimes wrote as William Irish. As you can see from the slide, more films noir have been adapted from Woolrich stories than from any other author; this slide only lists the 15 films released between 1942 and 1954 which have at least 10.5 POINTS.

This quote from a 1988 biography perfectly distills Woolrich’s noir fatalism:

“…perhaps the most important moment of his life, literally his dark night of the soul, when he suddenly understood, not just intellectually but in his heart and blood, that someday like Cio-Cio-San [of Madame Butterfly], he too would have to die, and after death there is nothing. It happened…’one night when I was eleven, and huddling over my own knees, looked up at the low-hanging stars of the Valley of Anahuac, and I knew I would surely die finally, or something worse.’ This…was the beginning of ‘the sense of personal, private doom.’ […] I had that trapped feeling, like some sort of a poor insect that you’ve put inside a downturned glass, and it tries to climb up the sides, and it can’t, and it can’t, and it can’t’”[1]

One thing I forgot to tell the girls was how I opened the eulogy I delivered for my mother—their grandmother—on March 2, 2004. Observing that Woolrich was a renowned writer who had essentially invented the psychological suspense story, I noted only four people attended his funeral in September 1968. By contrast, I continued, there were twice that many people in attendance that morning who had never even met my mother, primarily my coworker “family.”

And with that, we settled down in the living room—note the blue sofa devoid of clean unfolded laundry—to watch Phantom Lady. I chose this film because it…

  1. has the most POINTS (42.5) of any Woolrich adaptation, tying it for #27 with The Naked City,
  2. features a strong heroic female lead in 23-year-old Ella Raines,
  3. was directed by the man I most strongly associate with classic film noir, Robert Siodmak and
  4. includes some of the most famous scenes in classic film noir

Just before we started to watch Phantom Lady, there was a brief conversation over whether the girls could use their Nintendo switches at the same time. I started to say no, but then gambled the movie would be compelling enough to draw then in. I knew I was correct when, about 15 minutes in, our older daughter showed me some green animal on Animal Crossing, adding “It’s a good movie, though.”

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to me, that same daughter had had something of a meltdown that morning over the fact she could not see her ribs; we seem to deep in that phase of pre-adolescence. But that makes the exchange we had over Ms. Raines—who I confess I find very attractive (those clear blue eyes…), but who also strikes me as too thin—that much more cringeworthy.

While agreeing Ms. Raines was attractive, she took exception to my fancying her, crying “She’s 20 years older than you!” Learning Phantom Lady was released in 1944, she amended her outrage to note she was 22 years older than me—not counting that she was in her 20s when she starred in it. To this, I unhelpfully added that she was also dead.

Strangely enough, these conversations never took place with my six “What is Film Noir” students. Nonetheless, as a teacher I did pause the film a number of times to point out something about Woody Bredell’s lighting scheme or to comment upon Woolrichian coincidence.

Meanwhile, when Elisha Cook, Jr. first appeared on screen, our younger daughter immediately said, “He was in that other movie,” recalling his key role in Stranger on the Third Floor, which she and I had watched the previous Sunday. This is the same daughter who sliced open an avocado for a snack, somewhat raggedly using her child-safe white plastic knife, while her father instead had a toasted whole wheat bagel with cream cheese.

In the end, both girls enjoyed the film, although the intensity of the penultimate “damsel in distress” scene could be why our younger daughter had her own teary meltdown around dinner time. Being her, however, she recovered within five minutes.

A short time earlier, I had taken the dog out into the backyard. Ten or 15 minutes of frolicking in the mud later, I trotted her upstairs and into our walk-in shower for a long-overdue bathing. Wrestling a wet 50-pound dog in such a confined space is a serious aerobic workout—never mind toweling her off afterward—but on this occasion I punctuated with the loud shrieks of a cooped-up maniac—not unlike the noises Mr. Bergara made when he and Mr. Madej returned to the “Winchester Mystery House.”

When I suggested to Nell, who had overheard my chorus of madness, that such vocalizing was an expression of stir-craziness, she observed “this is only the beginning.”

A short time later, as Nell was preparing Trader Joe’s chili and cornbread, she noted that when she spoke to her friend in Chicago it was 65 degrees and sunny, so that weather should be here soon.

“No,” I replied, “All of Chicago is on lockdown. The weather can’t leave.” She found that genuinely amusing—unlike the usual “that joke never gets funny” response my quips merit—saying, “That’s…that’s funny.”

Thanks, Nell. Thanks a lot.

Later that evening—early that morning—I wrestled with how I wanted to teach the girls about the early history of rock and roll, which I realized was not my strongest area. Girding myself to prepare a set of PowerPoint slides with links to YouTube videos, I quickly found this hour-long documentary from 1984. I watched it and decided it would be good enough.

Which it proved to be.

**********

I may only have been joking about the weather, but I did not expect to wake on Friday, April 3, 2020—thanks to Nell, since I had neglected to set my alarm—to a near-nor’easter. An hour-plus later, when I went downstairs, this is what greeted me in the “classroom”:

April 3

Dr. Dobby was back as well, albeit willing to stay in a supportive role:

Supportive Dr Dobby

I had briefly debated offering the girls the choice between Episode 2 of Jazz or the rock and roll documentary, but I realized I had already set up the latter with the Sister Rosetta Tharpe video. The girls liked the documentary, although our older daughter had a difficult time with Elvis Presley’s slicked-back hair, finding Jerry Lee Lewis much more attractive—well, at least until she realized he had married his 13-year-old cousin.

Her younger sister, meanwhile, quietly watched a few tears roll down my cheek when they showed footage of the February 3, 1959 plane crash which effectively ended the first phase of rock history. Later that night, in honor of Buddy Holly, I finally purchased 18 of his songs on iTunes.

After a 30-minute or so break, the three of us gathered in the classroom, where I “lectured” from these notes (which I admit are mostly cribbed from the Internet minefield which is Wikipedia):

April 3

Three observations I neglected to include in my notes, but which I improvised:

  1. An oversimplification of the Hegelian dialectic
  2. The replacement of the aging Dwight Eisenhower with the much younger John F. Kennedy in 1961
  3. How the emerging songwriting duo of Burt Bacharach and Hal David found their muse around 1962 in the person of a New Jersey gospel singer named Dionne Warwick.

My point was that far from “dying,” American music other than rock and roll thrived between February 3, 1959 and the first appearance of The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show on February 9, 1964. While there was no guarantee rock and roll would reemerge in those five years—let alone become the dominant pop music for generations to come—it is only with a particularly rock-centric hindsight we say “the music died,” with all due apologies to Don McClean.

And with that, at 5:12 pm, week three of home schooling came to a successful end.

Which Nell and I celebrated by watching the first three episodes of season two of Broadchurch, after consuming her scrumptious steak fajitas.

**********

On March 30, at 10:53 pm, I replied to a tweet to the effect one’s “pandemic” song is the #1 song on your 12th birthday:

Oh dear. 

Oh oh OH DEAR.

Mine is…

Kiss You All Over” by Exile

So inappropriate in so many ways.

Wow

The Billboard magazine week began on my birthday in 1978, so I could have fudged the issue by going with the previous #1: “Boogie Oogie Oogie” by A Taste of Honey. To be fair, I love both songs.

Meanwhile, when I explored the 20 number ones single of 1978 (accursed Wikipedia again…I am slipping), it was hard to miss the fact five were by the Bee Gees or their younger brother, Andy Gibb, and that they occupied the top spot a combined 22 weeks.

Despite being inundated by the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack when I was 11 and 12 years old, I have long since come to appreciate the excellent Bee Gees tracks of the mid- to late-1970s. However, I had continued to dismiss the younger Mr. Gibb for decades, despite his tragic death from heart failure in 1988.

And yet as I looked over those song titles—“(Love Is) Thicker Than Water” and “Shadow Dancing” among them—I found myself mentally humming them, surprised how good I recalled them being. I played snippets of them on iTunes, realizing I had forgotten he had had performed some of them—or I had never known it in the first place.

On Friday afternoon, as I discussed the formation of The Beach Boys—the American yin to The Beatles’ yang—our older daughter half-disgustedly proclaimed them the first “boy band.”  I indignantly shot down that comparison, repeating my contention one of the hardest things in all of art to do is write a memorable, three-plus-minute pop song. The Beach Boys did it many times…

…and so did Andy Gibb, I realized to my chagrin.

Which is why, before I purchased those Buddy Holly tunes, I bought six Andy Gibb tunes; I am enjoying them immensely.

Rest in peace, Mr. Gibb. Your songs remain your greatest legacy.

Until next time…please stay safe and healthy…

[1] Nevins, Francis M., Jr. 1988. Cornell Woolrich: First You Dream, Then You Die. New York, NY: The Mysterious Press, pg. 8.

Dispatches from Brookline: Home Schooling and Social Distancing VII

I have described elsewhere how my wife Nell, our two daughters—one in 4th grade and one in 6th grade—and I were already coping with social distancing and the closure of the public schools in Brookline, Massachusetts until at least April 7, 2020. Besides staying inside as much as possible, we converted our dining room into a functioning classroom complete with workbooks, flip charts and a very popular white board.

**********

Perhaps as a consequence of our recent spate of deeply vivid, sometimes terrifying dreams, Nell and I are physically exhausted. Either that, or the enervating monotony of not knowing precisely when our sheltering in place will end—or whether some number of us will catch COVID-19—has taken its toll. “Chippy” is the word Nell sometimes uses to describe our moods…mostly my mood upon waking.

It does not help that the weather turned cold, wet and raw over the weekend, making going outside onto the porches or into the backyard far less appealing. Our nearly-six-year-old golden retriever, who likes cold air but not precipitation, was particularly flummoxed by the lack of outdoor exercise.

We do our best to be careful—rarely venturing to grocery stores or pharmacies, thoroughly washing hands and surfaces, and so forth—but this is an insidious virus, and even the best-laid plans can go awry.

For all that, however, we are extremely lucky:

  • We live in a large two-story apartment with three porches and sufficient nooks and crannies to provide a sense of separation. As much as we love each other, we need our own space at times.
  • I was already working at home—in the expectation of future, if not current, income—while Nell was only working two days a week, for less than 13 hours in total. It is our daughters who needed to adjust to being home all day every day, other than for long walks and runs in the neighborhood—and so far, they have done a reasonably good job.
  • Nell is a trained elementary school teacher who relishes the opportunity to teach her own children.
  • I have never taught children—but I have taught multiple subjects in multiple settings, and I have a plethora of data sets, PowerPoint presentations, prior posts and book chapters upon which to draw.
  • Our children, for all their quirks, genuinely like to learn.
  • We have financial assets independent of salaried employment, and Nell is an online-shopping maven—so we do not (yet) lack necessities.
  • Nell is also a superb cook who, happily for us, is using those skills to alleviate her anxiety. This gives me much more to clean at the end of the evening, about which I may grumble, but it also makes that nightly moment when the kitchen is thoroughly clean—counters and iron stove-top grillwork washed, dishes either in the dishwasher or washed and put away, coffee maker set up for the morning—even more satisfying.

One other thing I have observed. Major League Baseball Opening Day was supposed to be Thursday, March 26, 2020. Due to COVID-19, however, the start of the 2020 season has been pushed back indefinitely. I am a longtime diehard Philadelphia Phillies fan—and, yet, I do not miss baseball at all. Maybe this is simply perspective—it is hard to get excited about a group of millionaire athletes playing a game, however entertaining and imbued with civic pride, when much of the country is shuttered.

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Our weekend was again very quiet. Nell and I chose to skip our regular weeknight joint 8-10 pm MSNBC viewing to watch episodes three and four of the first season of Broadchurch. For those keeping score at home and know how much I love Doctor Who, three actors in the series—David Bradley, David Tennant and Jodie Whittaker—have all played The Doctor in the  last 15 years, while Olivia Colman and Arthur Darvill both appeared in the first episode Nell and I ever watched, “The Eleventh Hour.” This is precisely why my Anglophilic mystery-loving wife–who half-jokes there are really only like 10 actors and actresses in Great Britain—first watched the series five or so years ago.

While we watched, our older daughter had a “virtual sleepover” with two friends. This ended by 11:40 pm, however, as a sleepy daughter grew tired of watching Black Panther on a friend’s television through her iPhone. Her younger sister still became jealous, though, thinking she was going to watch as well—but was otherwise perfectly happy to FaceTime with a friend all evening.

Still, the following day she cajoled Nell into having her own virtual sleepover. She ultimately chose a friend with whom she has had issues in the past—our younger daughter insists on believing the best about everyone regardless (mostly) of contrary evidence. I expressed my displeasure in rather strong language, but I am sheepishly pleased to report the “sleepover” went very well.

After punting the evening before, meanwhile, Nell chose Saturday to make pizza from scratch for the first time. She used whole wheat flour, which was delicious, and let us each choose our own toppings. Our younger daughter despises any tomato product other than raw tomatoes, so Nell basically melted cheese on dough for her. Our older daughter, who is in what could loosely be called a “healthy eating” phase, had an array of sautéed vegetables and non-sautéed pineapple on her pie, while Nell went with caramelized onions and, I believe, mushrooms. I opted for pepperoni and pineapple. The pizza was flat and crispy, not unlike what you would get from a brick over pizzeria.

While younger daughter had her “sleepover,” and older daughter spirited herself away to her pre-teen bedroom, Nell and I binge-watched the final four episodes of season one of Broadchurch. Kudos to my wife for not uttering a single spoiler, even as I posited one incorrect theory after another.

Much later that night, or early the next morning, I excitedly stretched out on our white sofa to watch The Beast of the City, a proto-noir from 1932. I was disappointed in this choppy film, however, writing in my nightly note to Nell, “Beast of the City? More like nobody in this film except Wallace Ford can act city!”

Sunday was even lazier. With our older daughter having just completed the first book in the series, Nell and the girls watched The Hunger Games that evening. I took the opportunity to write this updated assessment of post-2005 Doctor Who instead. What three of us did share (our younger daughter does not currently have the widest food palette), however, was Nell’s delicious French onion soup, complete with a homemade French bread that turned out more like a homemade Italian bread. No matter, fresh bread is fresh bread.

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When I came downstairs on the afternoon of Monday, March 30, 2020 this is what greeted me in the “classroom;” I have redacted identifying information.

March 30

This was the first week of the revamped “Popschool” schedule:

Monday: Using a single story to illustrate some aspect of American political history/economy

Tuesday: Using the book I am writing to learn about our daughters’ and my Jewish-American heritage

Wednesday: Discussing the history of jazz and rock using my personal collection of DVDs and online tools like Polyphonic. 

Thursday: Learning more applied math by examining a wide range of interesting datasets

 Friday: Film history and, most likely, additional quizzes.

The night before, I had been undecided between beginning to discuss capitalism, socialism and the basic elements of the American economy—despite the less-than-stellar grades I had received in introductory microeconomics and macroeconomics my senior year at Yale—or return to the Constitution of the United States to highlight its 27 Amendments, especially the Bill of Rights.

Nell pointed out that much of what I taught them would not make sense without studying the Bill of Rights, and I agreed. Plus, I had researched their origin for the closest thing to a polemic I have ever published on this site—a call to repeal Amendment II. The upshot was that after I briefly relayed the history of those first 10 Amendments, we read them aloud. Fascinating sidebars on the American judicial system dominated our discussion.

After a 30 minute break, I walked them through both the…impolite…responses I had received when I first started tweeting about Amendment II repeal in July 2017—our younger daughter was particularly amused at the contrived “demseftist” and the absurd right-wing pejorative “snowflake”—and my counters to the 12 categories of opposing arguments I had received on Twitter. I also summarized my repeal arguments on the always-popular white board.

Repeal Amendment II

While she was listening to this point/counterpoint, our younger daughter had been giving herself “tattoos.” She insisted I photograph them, knowing full well they would appear here; she, like her sister, is a wicked awesome kid.

Tattoo you

And then, at about 6:30 pm, I acted like a crazy mad fool.

I climbed into Nell’s SUV and drove to the Star Market on Commonwealth Avenue. Parking in the nearly-empty lot, I grabbed my reusable bags and walked to the lower rear entrance. There, a sign informed me they had temporarily disallowed the use of such bags, so I trundled back to the car with them.

The grocery store had maybe a dozen customers wandering its aisles. Studiously avoiding them, I managed to find everything I sought—even two bags of unbleached King Arthur’s flour—which I then wheeled over to one of the two or three open checkout lanes. Blue strips of tape on the floor informed me where to stand to be at least six feet from the nearest customer. Essentially, one person at a time used the conveyor belt. Nonetheless, once I had unloaded my shopping cart, I instinctively reached for one of the yellow plastic dividers. Realizing there was no point in putting it on the belt, I immediately put it back, observing to the smiling brunette six feet behind me, “Force of habit.” She chuckled her assent.

Meanwhile, I had overheard the young man working the cash register tell the customer in front of me that Star Market does allow reusable shopping bags, so long as the customer bags her/his own groceries. We thus have five new white reusable shopping bags for later trips.

Emboldened by this much-needed outing, I filled up Nell’s SUV’s gas tank—requiring me to go into the attached convenience store for my receipt—then drove to a nearby CVS.

Living my life with reckless abandon I am.

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When I came downstairs on the afternoon of Tuesday, March 31, 2020 this is what greeted me in the “classroom;” I again redacted identifying information.

March 31

For the first time in 12 days of home schooling, when we convened at 2:45 pm I discussed something other than American political history, statistics or film noir…well, I managed briefly to sneak in the latter. Instead, we began to discuss the history of their father’s family—his legal family, that is: Jewish immigrants from the Pale of Settlement who settled in Philadelphia between 1891 and 1913, with a Philadelphia-born son from one family marrying a Philadelphia-born daughter from another family; they would then in-utero adopt—as their second child—a boy in the summer of 1966.

To set the stage for those stories, I condensed 4 millennia of Jewish history into 24 slides and wrote the names of the birth cities of four of their great-great-grandparents on the always-useful white board. The first one is pronounced “Pruhzh-nitz,” and it is where David Louis Berger was born just over 150 years ago.

Pale of Settlement

The Pale of Settlement

When I came to the final slides, examples of places to which Jews fleeing the pogroms immigrated between 1881 and 1914, I attempted to sketch on the increasingly-valuable white board the River Thames in London, as well as the intersection of Commercial Road, Commercial Street East and the Whitechapel High Street. This was by way of illustrating how the 100,000 Jews arriving in the East End of London in the early 1880s became a majority of the population around that intersection. In 1888, they became enmeshed in the hunt for a serial killer known variously at the time as The Whitechapel Fiend, Leather Apron, and, of course, Jack the Ripper.

I then wrote the word “Juwes” on the handy-dandy white board to illustrate how the word was spelled when it was written in chalk on the bricks inside the entryway to the Wentworth Model Dwellings on Goulston Street early on the morning of September 30, 1888. The full sentence, according to one account, was “The Juwes are the men that will not be blamed for nothing,”

Every time I think our younger daughter is not paying attention, I turn around and see she has drawn something like this…and I remember she misses nothing.

Whitechapel sketch

We took a 30-minute break at that point. When we returned, our daughters took turns reading aloud a short summary of the first five chapters of my book, after which I had to reassure our older daughter those were not the actual chapters.

“Oh no,” I said. “Here is Chapter 1,” as I dropped onto the table a sheaf of 17 pages—printed on both sides, Palatino Linotype 12, single-spaced—held together by a small binder clip. Our younger daughter was getting tired, and she is sporting a 102-degree fever, though that is not necessarily unusual for her, so her older sister happily read aloud the first eight pages, starting from the middle of page two. In so doing, she successfully got the Berger clan from Pryasnysz to Philadelphia by way of Quebec.

While our older daughter read beautifully, albeit stumbling over the pronunciation of more than a few tricky names, her mother was listening from the living room, where she was sitting at a table building a Stranger Things LEGO set. I apparently was correcting our older daughter too often because after about two pages, Nell piped up with, “If you keep correcting her like that, you lose the flow of the story.”

She was right—and I loved that she was engrossed in the story—so I limited my corrections only to truly tricky names like the Schuylkill River.

And with that, day 12 of home schooling was over—punctuated by our older daughter jumping up from the table with a “See ya suckers!”

Until next time…please stay safe and healthy…