When Failure Is Success…And Vice Versa

It was likely in 2001 – though it may have been just after I moved into my new apartment in the Philadelphia suburb of King of Prussia in February 2003 – I received this handsome piece of engraved metal from my more off-than-on-again girlfriend.

When I first read the question, I tried earnestly answer it – until I realized the obvious answer: nothing.

Just as the answer would be “nothing” if the last word was “succeed.”

It is the uncertainty of outcome that makes a thing worth doing. The thrill comes in succeeding when success was not guaranteed.

Moreover, I now think the question is purely hypothetical. I cannot imagine an activity where failure is not an option, no matter how seemingly banal or minor it is. Despite what the self-help gurus and the rah-rah-artists and the well-meaning leaders tell us:

Failure is ALWAYS an option.


In a recent post, I presented an update on the process of publishing the book – Interrogating Memory: Film Noir Spurs a Deep Dive Into My Family History…and My Own – I completed in late January. To summarize, I queried 100 literary agencies between February 5 and May 12, understanding this to the best route to securing a mass-market publisher. To date, 90 agencies have either formally rejected me (22) or have not responded to me within their stated time frame (68). My expectation is the remaining 10 simply have not yet rejected me, though I obviously do not know for certain.

At first glance, though, 100 seems like a large enough number of agencies that success should all but guaranteed. After all, I only need one, right?

Well, the likelihood of at least one agency accepting me as a client depends upon two things: the probability of being accepted by each individual agency, and the extent to which those probabilities are statistically independent; the latter being a fancy way to ask whether being turned down by one agency implies being turned down by other agencies.

Being of a quantitative bent, I calculated this probability as best I could, primarily to reassure myself as the days, weeks and months passed. To simplify matters, I assumed a constant probability of acceptance across all agencies AND the decision Agency A makes has nothing to do with the decision Agency B makes which has nothing to do with the decision Agency C makes…and so forth.

These are not great assumptions: it was obvious I fit better with some agencies than with others, meaning my probability of acceptance likely varied across the agencies. And while the agencies themselves want to you think each makes its own “highly subjective” (to quote nearly every rejection e-mail) decisions regarding new clients, the reality – apparent from a close reading of agent wish lists, emphasizing diverse voices, indifference to “serious” non-fiction, pre-existing platforms, “similar” (high sales) books and the constant refrain of how many queries each receives – is that nearly every agency is approaching those queries through a broadly similar lens.

Still, as a first approximation, we use this formula:

P(Acceptance by 1 or more agencies) = 1 – (1-p)n,

…where p is the probability of being accepted by any given agency, and n is the number of “trials,” in this case 100.

Going into this process, I naively thought my educational background (“I am an EXPERT!”) and the fact of completion (“No worries about me not finishing here!”) would boost my chances. Maybe to, you know, 1 in 100 – or p=0.01.

Well, that translates to a P of 63.4%. Even with 100 queries, the odds were only about 5:3 in my favor.

Lowering my expectations to p=0.005 – 1 in 200 – lowers P to just 39.4%, or about 3:2 against.

Lowering them further to the more realistic levels I should have understood in February (or in July 2017):

At p=0.001, P=9.5%.

At p=0.0005, P=4.9%.

At p=0.0001, P=1.0%.

And so on.

Now, this is when the bluntly American “can-do” mindset responds with “Well, then, you need to keep querying agencies.”

And that is not unreasonable. Except, I had just queried (excepting one with no e-mail address) every agency in WRITER’S MARKET 2019 that met my basic criteria: no reading fees, represents adult non-fiction, accepting new clients.

It can seem noble never to accept failure – to keep trying despite the long odds one faces because there is nothing we cannot do if we blah blah blah – but math does not lie.

Failure is ALWAYS an option.

But, for the sake of argument, let us say I found 100 more agencies to query. Here are the corresponding increases in P:

At p=0.01, P=86.6% (still 13.4% chance of failure).

At p=0.005, P=63.3% (still 36.7% chance of failure).

At p=0.001, P=18.1%.

At p=0.0005, P=9.5%.

At p=0.0001, P=2.0%.

You get the idea. Even at the rose-colored glasses probability of 1% and 200 queries, the probability of at least one acceptance is only slightly better than Hillary Clinton’s chances of beating Donald J. Trump going into Election Day 2016.

Clinton lost that election.

Failure is ALWAYS an option.


But, of course, so is success. There will always be a non-zero probability of both outcomes, no matter how much we – and, again, this is a particularly American perspective – try to “round” to 0 and 1.

Besides, all of this math – as wonderful as math is – misses the larger point: successes sometimes turn out to be failures, and failures sometimes turn out to be successes – at least when considered in the future.

Here are two examples from my own life – I encourage you to do the same with your own lives – where “success” and “failure” proved remarkably fluid.

  1. The unfinished doctorate.

In May 1988, I graduated with a BA in political science from Yale University. That September, I began a one-year stint as a Research Assistant in the Government Department at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC. I had enjoyed an unpaid internship there two summers earlier, so I was excited return for a salaried position – my first full-top “adult” job.

I hated it from day one; the success of getting the job later became a clear failure when I was let go the following May. Long before then, though, I had applied to five doctoral programs in government – University of California Berkeley, Harvard, University of Michigan, Stanford, Yale – and been accepted, with generous financial incentives, at all five of them.

Wow, I thought, I am set. Like, golden.

I chose Harvard, moving to the Boston suburb of Somerville in late August. For the first two years, I loved being at Harvard – my fellow students were both impressive and friendly, the classes were excellent, and I felt as home as I had my first few days at Yale.

But as oral and written examinations loomed in early June 1991 – ending the master’s degree portion of the program – something imperceptibly shifted. My romantic life was a bit of a mess, for one thing. Also, I had miscalculated at the end of 1990, when it was the turn of the students who had enrolled at the same time as me to provide the entertainment for the holiday party. We decided to use Saturday Night Live as the frame for our skits – complete with guest host monologue.

In a truly “what the hell was I thinking?” moment, I decided I would deliver the monologue as my academic advisor, Professor Gary King, who had just achieved full tenure at the age of 30. It was a fairly gentle bit of mockery – revolving him stopping wearing ties once he received tenure – but, in retrospect, it may have been unwise to satirize the soon-to-be-chair of my doctoral committee. Next thing I know, I barely pass my examinations – to this day, I think Gary blindsided me during the oral exams when he questioned me about my chosen area of interest, electoral geography.

Still, I put together a doctoral committee – including friend and mentor, Yale Professor David Mayhew – and wrote a dissertation proposal. It was accepted, and I set to work collecting data – even driving to Concord, NH in May 1992 to photocopy town-level results from that state’s 1976 presidential primaries. I wrote some early chapters.

But the joy was vanishing. I had difficulty translating my theory of “differential trait salience”[1] into mathematical models – and articulating it to my committee and fellow students. Moreover, I insisted on applying this model not to general elections – with their highly stable and complete data – but to presidential primary elections – with their highly unstable and incomplete data. I rationalized my creeping sense of failure by quipping bitterly, “Gary’s idea of advising is: go off, do some stuff, bring it back to me, and I’ll tell you why it’s wrong.”

This was garbage, by the way. King was an excellent – albeit socially awkward – political scientist and teacher. I was just not ready to listen, lacking maturity, humility and discipline. It is also likely my yet-to-be-diagnosed depression was kicking in – or kicking in harder – and I began to spend a lot of time in this excellent restaurant only two blocks from my apartment:

As I write in Chapter 11 (A Film Noir Fan is Born), “Credit card receipts reveal I spent at least $418.94 in 1991, $856.40 in 1992 and $554.79 in the first six months of 1993 there; the sum of $1,830.13 equates to $3,335 in 2019—on a modest academic stipend supplemented by teaching and research assistant work.” Self-medicating, much?

A temporary reprieve from my misery came late in June 1993, when there was a knock on the door that opened from the second-floor apartment I shared with three other 20-somethings onto the interior stairwell of our Somerville triple-decker. Two attractive younger women stood there. I recognized the one on the left as one of the female Harvard seniors who had just moved into the third floor apartment for the summer. The one on the right (one of her roommates) – an adorable brunette of just below medium height wearing glasses and a t-shirt advertising Squeeze’s Babylon and On tour – I recognized from the Greenhouse Café in the Science Center. In fact, almost as soon as I opened the door, I pointed to her, smiled and said, “I know you.”

I do not remember what they needed, but within a few days, the Squeeze fan and I had begun to date. To say she saved my life is overly melodramatic, but our rapidly progressing relationship gave me the strength to make one last push to complete my dissertation. Early the following year, I applied for – and received – a Mellon Dissertation Completion Grant. I even began to “joke” to – well, Nell calls her my first wife, so let’s go with that – “Got the Mellon, can’t elope.”

But it was all for naught. In the spring of 1995, after a disastrous search for a university teaching position,[2] I made the hardest decision of my life: to resign, ABD, from Harvard. My last-ever day as a doctoral student – or so I thought – was June 30, 1995.

For the next decade or so, I thought of this – and, in a way, the seven years prior to it – as the greatest failure of my life. Heck, I did not even have a Master’s Degree to show for it, despite completed the requirements; in the spring of 2015, I finally received that A.M.

Here is the thing, though. I am now thrilled I did not pursue an academic career in political science. Does the end of my six years at Harvard still sting? Absolutely. But do I regret not having to deal with the “publish or perish” nature of academia, with its petty squabbles and bureaucratic nonsense. Heck yes!

Even as I was ending my time at Harvard, first-wife and I found an apartment just a few blocks from the triple-decker we had briefly shared. We moved in over the summer; she had since graduated Harvard and enrolled in a doctoral program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she focused on atmospheric chemistry, earning her doctorate in four years. Not only is she one of the warmest people I have ever known, she is one of the most brilliant.

That summer, I worked a mundane data analysis job, and I was happier than I had been in years. After a disastrous stint in the Registrar’s Office at Brandeis University, in early October 1996 I landed my first health-related data analysis job at now-defunct Health and Addictions Research Inc. (“HARI”) in downtown Boston. This launched a six-position, 19-year career – ending in June 2015. Even with its abrupt end, I am immensely proud of this career – and the long-term friendships it yielded. But this professional “success” only happened because I “failed” to obtain a doctorate at Harvard.

2. Selling my mother’s condominium

On the evening of August 11, 2004, I stepped from the SEPTA commuter train onto the Radnor station platform. Descending the few steps to the parking lot where I had left my car that morning, I noticed some police officers clustered near my car. Walking closer, I realized they were standing by my car. As I approached, one asked if this was my car. Yes, I replied. That is when I understood someone had broken into my car – literally bending back the front passenger side window of my Buick Century from its rubber frame – and stolen the radio and some other ephemera. They eventually arrested the thief, and I testified against him in court, but did not recover my stolen property.

That weird, roller coaster day – I had had a terrible ice cream date then met a fascinating young woman while waiting for that very same train in Suburban Station – was the low point of one of the lowest periods of my life.

Backing up slightly, after meeting the woman whose gift opens this essay, I ended my relationship with first-wife in late November 2000. Yes, this was cause and effect. In early February 2001, I returned to Philadelphia. Four months later, I began a series of increasingly-important positions in the Research Department of what was then called the Family Planning Council of Southeastern Pennsylvania (“FPC”), the best professional profession I have ever had. The next few years exemplified “lucky in money, unlucky in love.” Gift-woman and I pursued a tempestuous, ill-defined long-distance friendship/romance that confused everyone, even us. This surrounded short-term flings that went nowhere.

Still, things looked promising early in 2003. I moved into the King of Prussia apartment, I was earning a good living, and the Phillies showed promise after some great off-season moves. But just one year later, in early January, my mother’s ovarian cancer returned with a vengeance. On March 1, 2004 – after a few weeks of hospice – Elaine Kohn Berger died at the age of 66. At the tender age of 37, I was an orphan.

Grief does strange things to people. On the day of my mother’s funeral – when I apparently drank most of a bottle of whisky, prompting a friend of my stepfather Eddie nicknamed Yo to declare, “If you try to drive home, I’ll rip out your fucking distributor cap” – my stepfather’s married step-granddaughter (my step-step-niece?) was clearly trying to seduce me. OK, I was not exactly fending off her advances; she was wicked hot. Nothing – much – happened, though she did put a bug in my ear about needing to cut bait and get on with my life. Realizing she was – not wrong – I ended my relationship with gift-woman in the most brutal telephone conversation I have ever had. I lied about my feelings, among other things. Even now, as I write this, I am filled with regret. Not that I ended the relationship, but the utter cruelty with which I did so.

And while all that unfolded, I was trying to settle my mother’s estate. For her own reasons, she had made Eddie and me co-executors. Embittered – and jealous of my relationship with my mother – Eddie decided to contest the will. He hired a lawyer, I hired a lawyer – and a 16-month ordeal began. The sticking point was a condominium my mother owned. She was living there when she and Eddie began dating around 1994 or so. They married in 1997, but my mother continued to earn rent from the condominium. When she died, I began to collect that rent – clearing $1,100 a month. I do not really understand why this made Eddie so upset – maybe grief, maybe the brain tumor that felled him a few years later – but he would not relent.

Flash forward to early December 2004. Yet another short-term relationship had come to a crashing halt, and I was beginning to see the writing on the wall at FPC – they were going in a more qualitative direction, my beloved projects were ending, and there was no room for me to advance. Meanwhile, trips to western Massachusetts the previous two summers had reminded me how much I missed the Boston area.

Even though I had done nothing wrong – other than be an absolute jerk to a woman I loved, for the second time in four years – I felt like an utter failure, trapped and lonely.

Then, soaking in the bathtub one Friday night, I had a brainstorm: why not sell the condominium, split the profits and end the standoff? With my proceeds, I could move to Boston, study biostatistics or epidemiology – maybe finally get that damned doctorate.

I presented the idea to my lawyer, who presented it to Eddie’s lawyer, who presented it to Eddie. Who – to everyone’s astonishment – agreed.

Huzzah! I cried, if only metaphorically.

The first six months of 2005 are a blur now – other than feeling absolute liberation and optimism. The condominium sold fairly quickly. I narrowed my choices to two schools of public health: Harvard, which seemed a bad idea, and Boston University (“BUSPH”), about which I had heard good things at a HARI reunion the previous summer. I arranged to retake my GRE’s. Having missed the deadline to apply to their epidemiology doctoral program, I applied to the one in biostatistics. Deciding I had been away from “higher math” too long, I was instead accepted into their master’s program. Which was fine; the process would just take a few years longer.

In March, a chance meeting at my local laundromat turned into a much-needed, if necessarily short-term, romance. I literally told her “I am moving to Boston in September” within minutes of meeting her. Looking back, she was the perfect transition relationship – even if she did move to Boston a few months after I did. That got – weird, though only briefly.

On June 30, 1995 I tearfully ended my game-changing four years at FPC. In August, I drove to Boston to find a new apartment, settling on a complex in Waltham not that different from the one in King of Prussia. Having not yet received my share of the settlement, though, I was forced to borrow the necessary first-last-security deposit payments from a close Yale friend. He graciously obliged.

Finally, at the end of August, I drove to a lawyer’s office in Philadelphia, where I was given a check for – let’s just say it was low six-digits. I immediately paid off – well, my Yale friend – my student loan debts and three credit cards, keeping only the Discover Card. It pays you back, you know.

The rest is wonderful, serendipitous history. Four days after moving to Waltham (with laundromat-woman) – hiring a moving company for the first time – the used Buick Century Eddie had given me when I moved to Philadelphia died. On September 6, I wrote a check for something like $34,000 to Cambridge Honda so I could drive away in a brand new black 2005 Honda Accord. Still in great shape, I hope to pass it on to our older daughter in a few years. I settled happily into my new classes, though I had to drop one – four was just too many; I finished the MA in three semesters, not two, as I had planned.

And on Halloween night 2005, a radiant elementary school teacher named Nell wrote to me on Friendster – and that is how I met my wife. She pretty much had me when she used “Persiflage” as the subject of her first e-mail to me.

In short, had I not reached a point of utter despair – grieving the loss of two women I loved, sensing the end of my most rewarding professional job, seeing no end to the fight with my stepfather – I would not have made the drastic, albeit smart in retrospect, decision to sell my mother’s condominium. Had I not made that decision, I would not have returned to Boston, earned both an MA and a PhD, bought my beloved Honda and met my astonishing wife. And without Nell, there are no incredible daughters.

And no Just Bear With Me…or Interrogating Memory.

Failure may always be an option, but it can also have a way of leading to successes, just as seeming successes can end up feeling like failures.

Now, back to the work of getting my book published!

Until next time…please be safe and healthy – and if you not already done so, please get vaccinated against COVID-19!

[1] Essentially, the idea that the overall demographic composition of a geographic area – a state, a county, a Congressional district – determined which demographic traits were most politically salient within an individual. This acknowledged that each of us has a race AND an ethnicity AND a socioeconomic status AND a religion (or no religion) AND an age AND a marital status AND an education level AND so forth. More often than not, race is the primary predictor of partisanship. But if an area is, say, 95+% Non-Hispanic White then a trait like education level or religion might be the primary predictor. Or something like that – I have not thought deeply about in more than 25 years.

[2] The disastrous – at least for a tried-and-true Democrat like me – 1994 midterm elections hurt as well. I realized how difficult it was going to be to separate my strong partisan lean from my need for professional objectivity.

Happy July 4th! Here is my American story.

Happy 4th of July!

Let me first note, transparent in my pedantry, the Declaration of Independence was actually approved on July 2, 1776. Nonetheless, it was dated July 4, 1776 and signed August 2, 1776.

Allow me next to relate I was physically born (at long-since-closed Metropolitan Hospital, then at 3rd and Spruce) roughly 1/5 of a mile (about 4½ city blocks) southeast of Independence Hall, where both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States were written.

And permit me to conclude with the fascinating coincidence that both the 2nd president of the United States, John Adams, and the 3rd president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, died on this day in 1826—50 years to the day from the day we designate as our official day of independence from England.

That is, I conclude these introductory paragraphs that way.


A few hours, I began to write a thread on Twitter. It opened thus:

1/ For July 4, I present my American story.

I was born in Philadelphia–where the Declaration of Independence and Constitution of the United States were written.

I was adopted in utero in the late summer of 1966. Both of my (legal) grandfathers were born outside the US.

The thread ties together the various elements of my background into a single, “American” story. Regular readers of this site will not be surprised, given a series of posts I have written (collected here) telling parts of this same story.

Moving right along:

2/ Morris Berger was born in what is now Poland in 1894 and came to the US when he was 4 years old. A Yiddish speaker, he became a successful business owner and Jewish community leader in West Philadelphia.

His son David Louis was my (legal) father.

He went the other direction.

Two things here (besides proudly observing I was given the Hebrew name Moshe ben David Leib in his honor).

One, the year of my (legal) paternal grandfather’s birth is incorrect. Twitter, however, lacks an edit function, so I could not correct this tweet once it was posted.

Two, there is some uncertainty as to when, exactly, Morris Berger (and three of his siblings) was born.


3/ Charming, gregarious and generous, “Lou” spiralled down after his iron-willed mother died in 1972. A gambling addiction cost him the business his father and uncle had built. He also lost his marriage–though he never lost me. He died, broke, from a heart attack at 46 in 1982.

David Louis “Lou” Berger died on June 30, 1982, meaning the 37th anniversary of his death was four days ago. By an egregious act of bad timing, June 30 is also the birthday of a close cousin. In fact, my mother and I spent the evening he died at a birthday party for this cousin. As we walked in the front door of our apartment after the celebration, the phone was ringing shrilly. My mother walked behind her white-and-chrome desk to answer it. It was her ex-husband’s—what is the adult form of “girlfriend?”—calling from her hospital bed to inform us of Lou’s sudden passing.

At the time, he was driving a cab for a living (quite happily, I hasten to add, because it gave me a freedom he had rarely known). He was headed to Little Pete’s diner (which closed in 2017) to meet some fellow cabbies for a meal, when he collapsed on the sidewalk in front of the Warwick Hotel (where my wife Nell and I stayed a few times early in our relationship). He was dead before he hit the ground from his third heart attack in 10 years.

Ignoring decades-old tears and moving on:

4/ Yisrael HaCohen was born in what is now Ukraine in 1904. He came to the United States when he was 7, speaking Yiddish. To join the Philadelphia Police Department in the 1930s, he changed his name to Samuel Kohn (sounded less Jewish) and changed his birthplace to Cleveland.

This story I have told before, so let us proceed:

5/ He served for nearly 20 years, rising to Detective. He ultimately retired to Atlantic City.

His daughter Elaine was my (legal) mother.

Serious reproductive health issues (and hysterectomy) led her only natural child (b. 1962) is “severely intellectually disabled.”

Again, one cannot edit a tweet—that should read, “led…to be.”

Because it is better to laugh than to cry, I sometimes tell the following “joke”: My mother had two miscarriages and a hysterectomy, and then I was born!

It was not until I became my sister’s sole legal guardian and began receiving her annual Life Enrichment Plans that I knew the extent of my mother’s reproductive miseries. Besides the two miscarriages—and a prolonged, painful labor resulting in her daughter being deprived of oxygen at critical moments during her birth process—Elaine Berger also had uterine cancer. Thus, the hysterectomy.



6/ I am my sister’s legal guardian. She lives in a facility run through private-public partnership; she is funded through supplemental Social Security income. Thank you, FDR.

Elaine took the opposite path from Lou. After her marriage ended in 1977, she worked a minimum wage job.

She actually took that job—cold-calling folks on behalf of the A-1 Carpet Cleaning Company—some time around October 1976, as her marriage was inexorably coming to an end.

And I must say this: the end of my (legal) parents’ marriage was about as amiable as such an event can be. As painful as it must have been (the night before they officially separated was the only time I saw my father cry), I will always be grateful to them for this civility.

Meanwhile, this is what I mean by “supplemental Social Security income.”

Moving on:

7/ Eventually, Elaine bought that business and, with some help from her own business-owning mother, made a good living for nearly 25 years.

But her reproductive issues returned, and she died from ovarian cancer, aged 66, in 2004.

Oh…her mother. Irene Gurmankin, later Goldman.

Yes, my (legal) maternal great-grandfather—or, at least, his four daughters—also Anglicized his name.

Three years after Elaine Berger began as a minimum-wage-earning telephone solicitor, the owner—a lovely man named (if memory serves) Schwartz—retired. My mother worked out a deal with the man who owned the actual carpet-cleaning machinery to run the business together. A few years after that, this other man retired (or something, my memory defies interrogation on these points), and Elaine Berger took over the A-1 Carpet Cleaning Company (a two-person operation—three when I pitched in, mostly by filing or placing leaflets on car windshields—to be sure) for good.

Here she is in 1988 running that business (same desk, different apartment) with her two children framed in the background:



8/ After divorcing Samuel Kohn in (I believe) 1964–a rarity in those days–she started a cosmetics and costume jewelry business. That business–and her own iron will and fierce work ethic–became fairly successful, allowing her to live comfortably until her death at 92 in 2007.

For some reason, Irene Kohn (she kept the surname) soon moved 60 or so miles west to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where she set up shop at the newly-opened Host Farm. Because of her beauty and extroverted (if sometimes cruel—my relationship to her was complicated) charm, she quickly established herself as the unofficial hostess of the sprawling resort. This was a great boon to my cousins and me, who effectively had the run of the place (two pools, a game room, a gift shop, three great restaurants with employee discounts, endless hallways to explore, a superb daylong program called the Peppermint Parlor). Heck, I got to see my man Rupert Holmes perform in the Host Farm Cabaret (for free) in the summer of 1981!

She finally moved back to Philadelphia in 1984, though she never actually retired, running a mail-order business for loyal customers well into her 80s.


9/ Meanwhile, Morris Berger died, aged 61, in 1954 (correction, he was born in 1893–if only Twitter allowed editing), and Samuel Kohn died, aged 73, in 1978.

OK, that is my legal family, the only family (prior to marriage and parenthood) I have ever known.

I really wish I could have known my namesake—whose death was one of a series of blows to young Lou Berger, who was asked to shoulder more responsibility than he was prepared to. As for “Pop Pop Sam,” for all his “combative personality” and temper, he was a kind and loving grandfather, and I miss him still.

The next few tweets in the thread speak for themselves:

10/ Here is what I know about my genetic family.

My maternal grandmother could trace her ancestry–and family presence in the United States–to the 1700s. English, Dutch. Her ancestors primarily lived in the southeasterern [sic] United States.

Where they fought for the Confederacy.


11/ Alice Mulkey married an Irish Catholic Philadelphian named William Dixon, and moved to Philly. Their first child is my genetic mother.

They lived in what was then a working class area

At 19, while working at Philadelphia’s Drexel University, she met my genetic father.


12/ This part is…fuzzy…so I elide it.

However, the man she met was almost certainly the only son of legendary naval historian Reuben Elmore Stivers. Assuming I am correct, my genetic father died in 2006.

The Stivers family also goes back in the United States to the 1700s.

I exaggerate only slightly when I use the word “legendary” to describe the man who is almost certainly my (genetic) paternal grandfather. When I explained to a different cousin, who serves his country ably and proudly as a Lieutenant Commander, Naval Intelligence, “Smokey” Stivers was likely my ancestor, he said admiringly, “Oh, THAT Reuben Stivers!”

Continuing the thread:

13/ Except they were primarily in Kentucky.

And those men fought for the Union during the Civil War.

“My” branch settled in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, DC. This could explain my (legal) mother’s belief that my genetic father was Colombian.

I miss her (and my father).

Two points.

One, it was not just Kentucky. It was specifically around Lexington, Kentucky, based on what I have learned on Ancestry.com and through discussion with newly-discovered genetic cousins (who have been unfailingly gracious).

But more to the point, I was shocked to learn my genetic ancestors fought each other (perhaps literally, I do not know) in the American Civil War; ponder that counterfactual for a while. This discovery also fits well within the context of my “split identity” first post.

Two, Elaine Berger was so convinced (after a bad game of Telephone: my genetic mother conveyed what she knew to Modell, who passed it on to his client, who probably misunderstood “District of Columbia”–which had only just received its three electoral votes—as “Colombia”) of my genetic paternal heritage she went to the library to see what Colombian children looked like. I do not know what photographs she saw, but she told me numerous times she thought I would be black, or at least much darker-skinned.

She was one of a kind, my mother was.

14/ Upon learning she was pregnant, my genetic mother–unmarried and lacking means–chose to put me up for adoption.

That adoption was arranged through another child of Jewish immigrants, Herman Modell.

How, you ask, did my (legal) father and uncle know the powerful Mr. Modell?

I scrupulously avoid injecting my own political beliefs onto this site, but I make an exception here.

Had I been conceived seven years later, my genetic mother could have had her fetus legally aborted, thanks to Roe v. Wade.

Now, because of her Catholic upbringing—and this is pure speculation on my part—my genetic mother may have carried me to term anyway. She also may have been living in different economic and/or personal circumstances after January 1973. The counterfactuals make my head spin.

And let me back up a second here.

Nell and I have discussed on more than one occasion how much of a role privilege (read: white privilege) plays here. Her own mother was raised with a modicum of wealth, and there is no doubt that if she had found herself with an unwanted pregnancy early prior to 1973, her family would have quietly arranged an abortion for her. It is a near-certainty my genetic mother had no such option (which is why, as long as I am shouting from my soapbox, I have always been opposed to the Hyde Amendment—it denies less well-off women access to a Constitutionally-protected medical procedure and is thus, frankly, unconstitutional. Talk about an “undue burden!”).

But if, under ANY circumstances, my genetic mother had chosen to abort the fetus gestating in her womb—the fetus that would not really become yours truly until the end of September 1966—I would absolutely and unequivocally support that decision.

It was her body, so it was her choice. As it is for all women, everywhere. If you do not like abortions, do not have one, but do not sit in any sort of judgment on any woman who makes that most painful of decision in private consultation with her medical providers and selected loved ones.

Just as I do not get to sit here, more than 50 years later, and judge my genetic mother for any decision she made (or did not make, or could/would have made). I did not yet exist as an autonomous being…and I if I had never existed as an autonomous being, so be it. It was never my decision to make.

My (legal) mother would often remark something to the effect of “If men could get pregnant, you would be able to get an abortion on any street corner.”

For a woman with only a few years of post-high-school medical technician training, she saw things with exceptional clearly.

Returning to my Twitter thread:

15/ Through their simultaneous membership in La Fayette Lodge No. 71.

Yes, my (legal) father, his uncle and the powerful lawyer who arranged my adoption were brother Freemasons.

To be fair, my (legal) father was asked to leave La Fayette Lodge No. 71 for non-payment of dues.

I have told some of this story before, so let us move on; see also here. I would just add that to the extent you knew my father—and realize he was a Freemason for about 10 years—any support for the myth of the controlling influence of the Freemasons evaporates.

16/ But consider this.

When the unplanned child of two people who could trace (mostly) ancestry in the United States to the 1700s was placed for adoption, with whom was he placed?

The children of Yiddish-speaking immigrant fathers who had built successful lives in Philadelphia.

And there it is…thank you for continuing to “just bear with me.” Often lost in our collective squabbles over immigration: the descendants of recent immigrants often do better economically and socially than the longer-term “original settlers.”

Speaking of bearing with me:

End/ I was fortunate to be raised by loving parents of some means in the leafy suburbs north and west of Philadelphia. Nature and nurture cooperated successfully, and I enrolled in Yale College in 1984, sparking a fairly successful life of my own.

And that is #MyAmericanStory

Here is a photograph of those leafy suburbs, as my (legal) father holds his two children (backstory here):

Sue Ellen Drive Feb 1967 or October November 1967

And here I am with my legal mother and maternal grandmother at my graduation from Yale in 1988.

Yale graduation with Nana and Mom 1988.jpg

Here is the first postscript:

PS/ I am writing a book (inspired by, of all things, trying to explain why I love #FilmNoir so much) detailing this history. Working title: Interrogating Memory: Film Noir, Identity and a Search for Truth.

For more, please see justbearwithme.blog.

Thank you, and Happy 4th!

Hmm, this is getting very circular.

And, finally:

PPS/ My profile picture is from my (legal) parents’ wedding in January 1960. Their wedding, literally and metaphorically, took place about half a mile south of City Line Avenue. They were on the Philadelphia side, but maybe they could see their future home in the suburbs.

For those of you who do not follow me on Twitter (tsk, tsk–@drnoir33), here is that photograph:

Elaine and Lou Berger with parents January 17 1960.jpg

I do not know who the gentleman on the far left is (a great-uncle?), but from left to right are Rae Caesar Berger (mother of the groom, Lou Berger, Elaine Kohn Berger (photograph taken after exchange of vows), Irene Kohn (mother of the bride) and Samuel Kohn (father of the bride).

I LOVE this photograph, even if the men on either end look dyspeptic.

Please have (or continue to have, or I hope you had) a safe and festive holiday!

Until next time…

Two posts diverged…though not in a yellow wood

This post began as the seventh in the “organizing by themes” series, the one that would contain annotated links to my posts related to epidemiology, epistemology, public health and career changes.

THAT post may be found here.

When I started writing, though, I realized that I was telling the full back story of my adult professional and graduate student life. So rather than clunkily shoehorn the “theme organization” post at the end, I acceded to the inevitability of two distinct posts.

This was not the first time I had started writing one post only to find myself writing an entirely different post; it is a welcome process of literary free association.


As I have alluded to elsewhere, I sort of stumbled into my previous career as a health-related data analyst.

On June 30, 1995, I walked away without a degree from a six-year-long pursuit of a doctorate in “government” (rea: political science) from Harvard’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS). In June 2015, however, I applied for—and received[1]—the Master’s Degree for which I had already qualified when I resigned; it was not the worst consolation prize ever.

IMG_2337 (3).JPG

With no idea what to do next (other than remain in the Boston area, having just moved into an apartment with my girlfriend of two years) and a set of quantitative and “critical thinking” skills, I spent the summer of 1995 performing data entry at a long-defunct firm called Pegasus Communications. That bought me some time…though I did not use it as wisely as I could have.

The following January, despite my better judgment, I accepted a position as an Assistant Registrar at Brandeis University. To this day, I do not know why I was offered the position: I was a 29-year-old political science major with zero experience in higher education administration who would be supervising three highly-competent professional women a few decade older than me.

In retrospect, I think my relative youth and inexperience equated to “willing to work long hours for a lower salary.”

Still…you get what you pay for: it was a terrible fit from the start, and I was unceremoniously let go late in May. As relieved as I was to be free from that position, that was the most drunk I would be until the day my mother was buried in March 2004[2].

Regrouping, I narrowed my focus to positions which would allow me to utilize the data analytic skills I had acquired at Yale and Harvard (though, in retrospect, I did not know nearly as much as I thought I did).

My break came in October 1996—just after I turned 30. I accepted an Analyst position with Health and Addictions Research, Inc. (HARI), in part using baseball statistics. And for the first time, I truly enjoyed a full-time adult job[3]. However, the federal grant funding for this position expired (not for the last time) in June 1998, so a few months later I moved on to North Charles Research and Planning Group then the MEDSTAT Group. These latter two gigs were, in order, horrific and not-bad-for-a-few-months.

All of these companies were located in or near Boston (and no longer exist in late-1990s form). However, as 2000 ended, so did my relationship with the woman my wife Nell half-jokingly calls my first wife. As a result, I decided to resign from MEDSTAT and seek a fresh start in the Philadelphia area, where I was raised.

I actually had a good position lined up with a psychometrics firm in King of Prussia (about 21 miles northwest of Philadelphia), but for still-unexplained reasons, I was “unhired” two days before I was scheduled to start. Nothing breeds paranoia like “we are withdrawing our offer but we won’t tell you why!”

The silver lining, however, was that I was unemployed when a Senior Research Associate position became available at the Family Planning Foundation of Southeast Philadelphia (FPC) in June 2001.

This was where a collection of loosely-related health data positions became a full-fledged career in “health-related data analysis.” Following the abrupt departure of my initial supervisor, I effectively ran a grant-funded research project. When that project ended after one year, I was promoted to direct a new grant-funded project; this latter project remains the most rewarding professional work I have ever done.

In the meantime, I was preparing and delivering talks at scientific conferences (American Public Health Association, Eastern Evaluation Research Society—on whose Board of Directors I would serve for a year). My colleagues and I wrote and published a peer-reviewed journal article for yet a third grant-funded project; I was listed as second author[4]. When the woman who directed the Research Department retired, she hired me as a data-analytic consultant.

And so forth.

That first project for which I was hired related to the association between the establishment of neighborhood youth development activities and teen pregnancy rates. As I recall (more than 16 years later), these activities were established in selected zip codes in North Philadelphia (the “exposed” group), but not in West Philadelphia (the “unexposed” group—unless it was the other way around.

FPC was one of 12 sites chosen nationwide to receive one of these teen pregnancy prevention grants. At the end of the project, we began to write an article summarizing our findings. This was scheduled to appear in a special edition of a peer-reviewed journal (I forget which one) presenting the results from each funding site. While I was well-educated in quantitative methods (albeit from a social science perspective), we needed a more specific type of statistical expertise.

Enter Dr. Constantine Daskalakis on a consulting contract.

This man was a revelation to me. I had not known there was such a thing as “biostatistics,” and, despite working in public health as a data analyst, I was only vaguely aware of what “epidemiology” was.

In fact, all I really knew about epidemiology was an odd remark my Harvard doctoral committee chair made while teaching one of my graduate American politics classes: “Getting a PhD in political science is tough, but if you really want to do something hard, get a PhD in epidemiology.”

Make of this what you will: I did not complete the political science doctorate; I did complete the supposedly much-harder epidemiology doctorate.

What most impressed me about Dr. Daskalakis-who had only recently completed his own biostatistics/epidemiology doctorate—was his sheer clarity of thought. He laid out an effective analytic approach in a few quick steps.

It was, for all intents and purposes, my first epidemiology lesson.

For various reasons (the timing and efficacy of the youth development activities was wonky?), we wrote a solid draft but never submitted it for publication; there went my first chance to be a first author.

Until then, I had fully rejected the idea of completing a doctorate in a different field; the wounds were still too raw. But the idea of directing my own grant-funded projects—even directing a non-profit research department myself—began to appeal to me. And that would require pursuing a public-health-related doctorate in either biostatistics or epidemiology (they were already cleaving into distinct fields of study).

It remained simply a vague notion, however, until the summer of 2004 when in quick succession 1) my mother died, leaving my stepfather and I co0-executors of her modest (but not trivial) estate, 2) the second grant project ended, 3) the next grant-funded project proved less appealing and 4) the siren call of Boston grew ever louder, especially after a trip there which combined a HARI reunion and catching up with friends at the 2004 Democratic National Convention[5].

At the reunion, I heard excellent things about the Boston University School of Public Health (BUSPH). With no desire to return to Harvard (and/or fearing they would not want me back, even in a different graduate school), that was the only viable option I had.

That Fall, as the lawyer-driven[6] rift between my stepfather and me grew wider, a solution to our impasse occurred to me: sell the condominium my mother had intended me to have (and from which I was earning rent) and use the proceeds to pursue a doctorate at BUSPH.

Starting around my 39th birthday, no less.

My intention had been to apply for a doctorate in epidemiology, but the deadline for biostatistics was later, so that was what I chose. My GRE scores had long since expired, so I needed to take those again. My scores, after re-learning how to study for any kind of exam (the last time I had taken anything close to an exam was May 1991, when I somehow passed my Harvard GSAS oral and written exams), were…good enough.

But when I submitted my application to BUSPH, their response was a qualified acceptance: given how many years (20) had passed since I had taken a pure mathematics class, they enrolled me in the Master’s Degree program. I was excited and disappointed in roughly equal measure.

[Spoiler alert: they were not wrong]

Nonetheless, I was returning to Boston for what was shaping up to be a multi-step process. I submitted my resignation at FPC, and left—with an emotional send-off—at the end of June 2005.

In the meantime, I was still waiting for my stepfather to settle my mother’s estate with me…which he finally did in July 2005. In the interim, I had to borrow money from a friend to secure the apartment I had located in the Boston suburb of Waltham (yes, where Brandeis is located).

The final dispensation check was dated August 9, 2005; I know the date because I took an enlarged photocopy of it (it is resting comfortably in a filing cabinet behind me and to the left). No, I am not going to include a photograph of the photocopy.

However, just bear with me for a brief romantic digression.


On October 31, 2005, my first Halloween night back in Boston, I received a message from a woman named “Nell” on Friendster, one of the original social networks (and quasi-dating site). On a lark, I had posted on my profile page 10 trivia questions based upon key interests/likes (sample question: “Freddie Freeloader sits between what two greats?”[7])

Only a few miles away in the Boston neighborhood of Brighton, Nell, a private school teacher from Washington DC, was bored. Something about my profile appealed to her, so she took the time to research the questions to which she did not already know the answers.

Naturally, I was deeply flattered—and intrigued by her profile (and, later, her use of the word “persiflage” as the subject line for her first e-mail to me). We struck up a  brief correspondence then went on our first date (meeting in Harvard Square to eat at Bertucci’s—which is no longer there—and watch Good Night, and Good Luck—at a movie theatre which no longer exists). I was so nervous, I kept dropping the movie tickets.

I must not have been too nervous, though: we married 23 months (and one day) later[8].


My plan had been to complete all of my coursework in two semesters (while not earning any income other than interest) to save money. I had already paid off some substantial credit card debts and lingering student loans—and a few days after I returned to Boston, my 1995 Buick Century died. Rather than incur new debt, I paid in full for my black 2005 Honda Accord (it was love at first sight when I spotted it on the dealership lot); I still drive that Accord.

Four courses a semester proved too stressful, though, so I paid for an additional semester.

On a Thursday night in early September 2005, I drove down to the Albany Street campus, parked and walked into a classroom—more of a small auditorium, really—for the first time (as a student) in nearly 15 years. It was Dan Brooks’ Introduction to Epidemiological Methods; the two disciplines may have cleaved into different departments but they were still interconnected.

And, just like that, I was home. In epidemiology, I had found that perfect combination of applied math, logic and critical thinking I had not even known I was searching for until I found it. Even as I labored joyfully through, first, Intermediate then Modern Epidemiology (perhaps the best course I have ever taken), I knew I would soon be applying to the BUSPH doctoral program in epidemiology.

It had to be soon, actually, because my GRE scores would expire in 2010.

By January 2007, I had completed both my “theoretical” and “applied” qualifying exams, and I received my diploma a short time later. I had already parlayed my impending degree into a Quality Researcher position at the Massachusetts Behavioral Health Partnership (MBHP), where I would remain until I was laid off (expiration of grant funds again) in June 2010.

My application to the BUSPH epidemiology doctoral program was accepted early in 2009 (“We were wondering when you were going to apply!”), and I enrolled that September. Thank goodness I did, because when I left MBPH the following June, we lost our health insurance; BUSPH picked up the slack.

In May 2011, I accepted an Outcomes Analyst position with Joslin Diabetes Center, where I would remain until June 2015, when—you guessed it—the federal grant funding expired. Yes, not only did my father die on June 30 (1982), I left four different positions (only one truly voluntarily) on that day in 1998, 2005, 2010 and 2015. And yet it is not even close to my least favorite day of the year; I reserve that honor for Valentine’s Day, which I utterly loathe.

Unlike my doctoral program at Harvard, the BUSPH epidemiology program had an elegant, well-ordered rhythm to it: two years of coursework—culminating with the dreaded hurdle known colloquially as “Dan Brooks’ seminar.” After that came the “biostatistics” and “epidemiology” qualifying exams, selection of a three-person committee and a thesis topic, drafting of a short letter of intent outlining the three connected studies you were going to conduct, drafting of a very-detailed 25-page outline of the final dissertation, then the researching and writing of the thesis itself.

Nothing to it, he wrote with a shudder of remembrance.

And, of course, what followed that five-year journey (nine if you count the biostatistics MA) was the doctoral defense.

Oh my…the defense.


Technically, this photograph was taken (on the late afternoon of December 16, 2014) after I had successfully defended (when the three doctoral committee members leave the room to “confer”—and return with cake and champagne), but my slides are still being projected, so it is close enough.

Not long after, I collected this from…somewhere…on campus.

IMG_1757 (2).JPG

Nearly 20 years after I had walked away from one doctoral program, I had successfully completed an entirely different one.

And this is essentially where you came in to the movie.

Until next time…

[1] In December 2015

[2] After the funeral (at which I eulogized my mother), I spent much of the evening walking around my late stepfather’s house, where we were sitting shiva for my mother, swigging directly from a bottle of Scotch. When I walked out the house later that night in the direction of my parked car, a family friend with the superb nickname “Yo!” said he would “rip out [my] fucking distributor cap” if I attempted to do drive myself home. Not being a complete fool, I permitted a close male cousin to drive me home.

[3] And where I taught myself my first geographic information systems (GIS) software package.

[4] A 2000 article based on HARI research listed me as third author.

[5] In June 1991, a late friend of mine from suburban Philadelphia asked me to come to St. Louis to support his candidacy for Treasurer of the Young Democrats of America. I rented a car and drove to St. Louis, renting my very own room in the conference hotel, and joining the Pennsylvania delegation. I became friends with some members of the Alaska delegation, one of whom served as a whip at the 2004 convention in Boston. She was the one who invited me to Boston. I was actually in the rafters of the Fleet Center (the former Boston Garden, now the TD Garden) for former president Bill Clinton’s address—having walked by then-Representative Dennis Kucinich of Ohio on the way in to the building. I was in a local bar watching with dropped jaw as a charismatic young Illinois State Senator and candidate for United States Senate named Barack Obama gave the keynote address. While I was there, Mr. Obama spoke to few dozen or so people at nearby Christopher Columbus Waterfront Park; I saw his speech, but I regret not meeting him and/or getting a photograph with him.

[6] I still do not quite understand why he chose to fight my mother’s—his wife’s—crystal-clear distribution of what property she had. But he did so—then tried to intimidate me by hiring a man named Vito Canuso, who had been the chair of the Philadelphia Republican Party…at some point. I countered by hiring the lawyer—Barbara Harrington Hladik—my mother had used for my sister Mindy’s guardianship hearing (she is severely mentally retarded; I am her legal guardian now). It was a mismatch from the start—Canuso never had a chance.

[7] Answer: “Freddie Freeloader” is the 2nd track on the Miles Davis masterpiece Kind of Blue, “sitting” between “So What” and “Blue in Green,” my favorite track…period.

[8] It was not all smooth sailing—but we made it there in the end.

And for my 100th post…100 random facts (about me)

This is post #100; thank you for continuing to “just bear with me.”

December 19 is also the two-year anniversary of this site’s launch (so I should gift myself either cotton or china, and it should be red).

To honor this symmetry, and to lighten the mood from my previous three posts (dealing—however obliquely—with the deaths of President George H.W. Bush, Pete Shelley and my maternal grandfather), I present 100 random facts about me. These tidbits of personal trivia are in no particular order.


#1-19. I have seen every episode of…

Barney Miller*



Documentary Now!

The Green Hornet (co-starring this guy)

The Honeymooners (classic 39 episodes, 1955-56)

Night Court

Police Squad (all six episodes)


Remember WENN



Square Pegs*

Star Trek: The Next Generation

Sweet Genius


Twin Peaks (including this movie)

The Untouchables*

WKRP in Cincinnati*

 Shows with an asterisk I own on DVD.

#20. Barney Miller remains my favorite sitcom, followed by Taxi and Remember WENN (in some order), then CouplingWKRP and Soap (in some order) along with Cheers and Get Smart.

Barney Miller DVDs.JPG

#21. I have likely also seen every episode of a truly obscure 1980 late-night soap opera called The Life and Times of Eddie Roberts. 

#22. I have seen (and own on videocassette) all 20 adventures of The Mighty Heroes that aired as part of the 1966-67 series Mighty Mouse and The Mighty Heroes.

mighty heroes

Picture from here

#23. I have seen every episode of Doctor Who since the 2005 revival.

#24. I have seen every episode of Dragnet released as part of the 1967-70 color revival. 

#25. I have spent the night in 24 states (25, if you count the District of Columbia [DC]). Roughly in order from most to least: Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Connecticut, DC, New Jersey, California, Florida, Maine, Michigan, Wisconsin, Georgia, New York, Vermont, Maryland, Illinois, New Hampshire, Iowa, Ohio, Louisiana, Missouri, Mississippi, Rhode Island, Virginia, and North Carolina and Tennessee (one night each on an April 1990 road trip).

#26. By contrast, I have never woken up in a foreign country.

#27-30. The only foreign country I have visited is Canada, three times in total.

The first time was to attend a Montreal Expos game in Montreal[1] on the afternoon of May 5, 1990 (which is what I told the gentleman at the crossing from Vermont).

The second time was on September 2, 1990. I began an eight-day road trip (1990 was my year for road trips) the previous day, driving west on I-90 through Massachusetts then deep into New York. Once it got dark, my rental car radio was able to pick up 1210 AM, the Philadelphia Phillies radio station, so I heard my Phillies sweep a double-header from the New York Mets (and the debut of a young second baseman named Mickey Morandini).

Believing I could simply find a room at an exit-ramp hotel, I had not booked one in advance. What I had not considered, however, was that it was Labor Day weekend. I remember one hotel clerk telling me there was not a room for “a hundred miles in any direction.” Exhausted, and unwilling to shell out an exorbitant amount of money for a hotel room 20 or miles away, I drove my rental car into the back of a Holiday Inn in Batavia, NY. I had had the foresight to pack a pillow, so I curled up in the backseat, using my robe as a blanket.

rental car September 1990.jpg

After sleeping for four hours, I roused myself at dawn and headed for Niagara Falls (which genuinely impressed me). I also found a pay phone and booked a room at a Motel 6 near Detroit, MI for that night. After touring the Falls, I drove into Canada, heading north to Toronto. It was a Sunday afternoon, so I listened on the radio as the Toronto Blue Jays playing the Cleveland Indians. The Blue Jays had their best starting pitcher, Dave Stieb, on the mound.

As I got closer and closer to Toronto, Stieb had still not allowed a hit. And I was literally in downtown Toronto when Jerry Browne lined out to right for the final out of the only no-hitter in Toronto Blue Jays history (by contrast, the Phillies have had six no-hitters since then).

I did not stop in Toronto, but rather drove directly to Windsor, Ontario, where I took the Ambassador Bridge north into Detroit—the only place you go north from Canada into the United States[2].

The third time was far less dramatic. On June 21, 1997, my then-girlfriend and I spent the night in Island Pond, VT (which I had first visited the day of the Expos game; different girlfriend, however). We listened to this painful loss in the motel room as it poured outside.

Since Island Pond is only 16 miles south on Route 114 from the border with Quebec, we drove to the border that night, crossed into Canada, drove a short distance then turned around and drove back into the United States.

#31. On that same September 1990 road trip, I was in the original Comiskey Park the night (September 3, 1990) Bobby Thigpen broke the single-seasons saves record.

#32. Speaking of old Comiskey Park (and Olympic Stadium in Montreal), I have been to more major league baseball stadiums that no longer exist (six[3]) than ones that are still in operation (three[4]).

#33. Over four consecutive summers (1978-81), I was a day camp camper, an overnight camp camper, an overnight camp worker (co-running the canteen) and a day camp worker (junior counselor at the same camp as 1978, Indian Springs).

#34. I was a camper at long-since-closed Camp Arthur-Reeta in the summer of 1979. For reasons which eluded me, my bunkmates gave me the nickname “Disneyland.”

#35. That same summer, I was sent home from camp for a week or two with the worst poison ivy I have ever had.

#36-48. I have also worked as a/an…

…part-time assistant (gluing samples into a display binder) for a specialty stationery store in Narberth, PA (summer 1982)

…file clerk in the G.H. Arrow periodical warehouse near 4th and Poplar (Philadelphia, summer 1983)

…delivery driver for Boardwalk Steak and Sub Shoppe (aka Boardwalk Pizza) in Ardmore, PA (spring/summer 1984)—still my favorite-ever job; I combined the Sea Isle and the Margate into my signature sandwich: the mushroom provolone pizza steak.

Boardwalk Sub 1.jpg

Boardwalk Sub 2.jpg

Boardwalk Pizza.jpg

…cashier in a WAWA food store in Belmont Hills, PA (summer 1985)

…cashier in a Washington, DC pizza joint (two weekends, summer 1986), while I was an unpaid intern at the Brookings Institute.

…shelving assistant in the Social Science Library at Yale (junior year, 1986-87)

…cashier at two different B. Dalton booksellers in Philadelphia (summers 1988, 1989)

…teaching assistant (three courses) and three-time senior thesis advisor at Harvard (1991-95)

…research assistant for multiple professors at Yale and Harvard

…data entry assistant at Pegasus Communications in Cambridge, MA (summer 1995)

…Assistant Registrar at Brandeis University (January-May 1996; the less said, the better)

…conductor of telephone survey research in Media, PA (spring 2001; see previous gig)

#49. My mother and I spent the summers of 1974 and 1975 at the Strand Motel in Atlantic City (between Boston and Providence, the beach and Pacific). Back then, before the opening of Resorts in 1978 destroyed Atlantic City, a long string of motels stood along Pacific Avenue between Albany Avenue to the southwest and New Hampshire to the northeast. My favorite pastime was to collect pamphlets from their lobbies; in the winter, I would dump them onto my parents’ bed and reminisce.

#50. Another pastime was to charge fellow patrons of the Strand pool 25 cents (or was it 50 cents?) to “bowl.” If memory serves, I had six cheap plastic trophies I stacked in a pyramid, and the goal was to knock them over with a ball of some sort

#51. My mother and I (and my father on weekends) occupied “penthouse” A at the Strand. Penthouse B was occupied by Leland Beloff, whose golden retriever Whiskey I used to walk with our Keeshond Luvey. One day I asked “Lee” (then 31 or 32 years old, what he wanted to be when he grew up (had he only known…).

#52. Along the same lines, my orthodonist (on whom my mother had a crush), nicknamed “Dr. Touchy,” was convicted of sexually molesting his female patients.

#53. My mother once told me that I was not allowed to do drugs until I was 32 years old, because that was when she started smoking marijuana (1970).

#54. I think I was in ninth grade when my mother ruined my adolescence by telling me, “Do what you want, just be careful.” Nice, appealing to my “good doobie” nature.

#55. As this signed napkin (my mother and me) clearly shows, Nancy Spungen was the niece of Joe Spungen, my first cousin, once removed, by marriage. Actually, that should be grand-niece…not sure if the error was in the speaking or the recording.

Nancy Spungen.JPG

#56. Another first cousin, once removed is Lois Lane[5], but she is not THAT Lois Lane. This is one of her paintings.

IMG_3789 (2)

#57. On a field trip to Washington, DC on May 6, 1980, I threw up in a men’s room in the United States Supreme Court building. I had a stomach bug.

#58. I still do not know how to ride a bicycle.

#59. However, according to family lore, I was able to read at the age of two-and-a-half. Supposedly, one day in the spring of 1969 I was driving in our Havertown, PA neighborhood with my maternal grandmother, when I read a street sign: “Watch Children.” (In the retelling, it has become “watch childwenz.”). Upon returning home, she insisted my mother had had me memorize the sign. In response, my mother handed me a copy of Life magazine, opened to a random page. I read it perfectly.

Again…that is the story. My wife Nell, a former elementary school teacher with an MA in early education, does not think that is physiologically possible.

#60. What is true, though, is that I was a voracious reader as a child, and I built an impressive library of books—which I eventually Dewey-Decimalized. I once set up a “lending library” on our front lawn. One kind gentleman actually rented a book.

#61. I used to borrow substantial American history textbooks from my elementary school library to read over the weekend.

#62. In sixth grade, two other male friends and I formed the Bibliophiles and Explorers Club. No records of “BEC” meetings survive.

#63. While I still love reading history, my tastes have changed, as reflected by my ownership of 21 books dealing with Jack the Ripper; I think that qualifies me as a Ripperologist. (Ed. note: see here for more).


#64. Overall, I have 70 books I would broadly describe as “true crime.”

#65. That total is dwarfed by my detective fiction collection (and associated biographies, critical studies and histories): 522 (+/-10). Note that some volumes contain multiple novels.

#66. As a boy in the mid-1970s, I loved watching reruns of Batman–especially when the opening credits featured Batgirl. In retrospect, it is clear my first celebrity crush was Yvonne Craig.

#67. Excluding a girl I helped get around our elementary school after she broke her leg, my first crush on a person I knew started on a December weekend in 1978. My seventh-grade class had just read A Christmas Carol. A local second-run theater was showing the 1951 film version. As my buddy and I were settling into our seats towards the darkened rear of the theater, I happened to look over to the right. Settling into her seat maybe 20 seats away was a lovely blond female classmate, who I already liked in a platonic way.

My brain did not literally go “zoing!” but that is as good a description as any.

#68. Five months later (May 1979), after my mother, Luvey the dog and I moved in with her sister (and her two kids and Spanky the dog), I flew on an airplane for the first time (I was 12). My maternal grandmother took my cousins and me to Walt Disney World. I have not been back since then.

#69. That was not my last trip to Florida. In March 1993, on a lark, I flew to Clearwater, FL to watch four Phillies Spring Training games (in another baseball stadium that no longer exists, Jack Russell). The first game I saw was an afternoon game in St. Petersburg against—I believe—the St. Louis Cardinals. I arrived about noon for a 1 pm start and took a seat in the bleachers. It was a hot, sunny day, so I took off my t-shirt—and kept it off the entire three-hour game (we lost 9-7). Coming from wintry Somerville, MA, it did not occur to me to apply any sunscreen.

I have never been so sunburned in my life…though that did not stop me from thoroughly enjoying the rest of the trip.

#70. In fact, I returned the next March, this time with my then-girlfriend (and an ample supply of sunscreen). We skipped 1995 because of the strike, but returned in 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999 and 2000. The Phillies did win any of the 12 games we watched in 1994, 1996 or 1997—an impressive 12-game losing streak with us in the stands.

#71. During that last trip, we stayed at a Hampton Inn (now a La Quinta Inn) on Route 19 north. One night, I was relaxing in the outdoor hot tub. I was 33 years old at the time. A number of young men were also in the hot tub, and they were discussing to which lower-level Phillies minor league affiliate they had been assigned. One of them then turned to me and asked something to the effect of, “So, where have you been assigned?”

Yeah, I was pretty flattered.

#72-74. I was even more proud of the following accomplishments (the first two of which are sort of repeat facts):

-Unanimous election as president of the Harriton High School Math Team

-Winning Harriton’s first ever Latin and Mathematics subject area awards.

-Unanimous election as chair of the Ezra Stiles College Council

#75. The latter election took place on September 21, 1986. Later that night, I visited the room of a young woman I liked. Very early the next morning, I wandered up Broadway—happy and bedraggled—to my own room. Along the way, I passed the Master of Ezra Stiles College, Traugott Lawler. Taking in the situation instantly, he simply nodded cordially to me, and I to him. To this day, I appreciate his discretion.

#76. I had officially become “a man” seven years earlier, at my Bar Mitzvah. As part of my months-long preparation, I was required to write out the answers to a series of Judaism-related questions in a notebook. I never got that notebook back because Rabbi Maltzman (who I adored) decided to use it as an example for future Bar and Bat Mitzvot. 

#77. I saw Talking Heads live twice, in the summers of 1983 and 1984. While I was at the first concert, someone asked my mother where I was. “Oh, he’s gone to see the Walking Dead.”

#78. The only acts I have seen live as many as four times (excluding my cousin) are Genesis (1982, 1983, 1987, 1992) and Stan Ridgway (2007, 2009, 2010, 2015).

#79. The first concert I ever saw was Cheap Trick, on October 5, 1979 at the now-gone Spectrum in Philadelphia. My father—to his great credit—drove and accompanied my buddy (the same buddy with whom I had watched A Christmas Carol) to the concert. While seated near us, someone offered him some grass to smoke. He politely declined.

Cheap Trick.jpg

#80.  The first album I ever bought (Spring 1977?) was Wings Over America—which I still have:

Wings Over America.JPG

#81. The second summer I worked at a B. Dalton Bookseller (1989), an African-American man in a long raincoat came into the store while I was cashiering. He perused the magazines before selecting a Playgirl.

He paid for it with a wrinkled $20 bill. Something about the bill felt…off…but it was almost the end of my shift, so I paid little attention. Shortly after the man left the store, my supervisor (who did not like me at all) saw the bill in the cash drawer—and realized it was a counterfeit.

We had to make a statement in a nearby police station.

A day or so later, I was fired.

C’est la vie.

#82. I left my last full-time position—data guru at Joslin Diabetes Center—on June 30, 2015. Three days later, with Nell and our daughters in our house on Martha’s Vineyard, I drove to the Cod Cove Inn in Edgecomb, ME for a little R&R.


For supper, I drove north on U.S. 1 to King Eiders Pub in Damariscotta, which I cannot recommend enough. With my substantial meal, I had a glass of red wine and a single malt Scotch.

After the meal, I drove north on U.S. 1 to Rockport, where the Denny’s I had visited a few times in the late 1990s with an ex-girlfriend sat. I had something desert-like there, along with decaffeinated coffee.

When I left, it was past midnight…meaning it was the morning of July 4. I began to drive south on U.S. 1, winding my way through the “urban” streets of neighboring Rockland.

Almost immediately, the blue flashing lights of a police car appeared in my rearview mirror. I pulled over and waited (license and registration in hand) as not one, but two, male police officers approached my car.

One officer came to my driver’s-side window to inform me I had been driving 40 miles per hour (MPH) in a 25-MPH zone; this was likely true, I confess. However, he then asked me what I had been drinking earlier that evening. I was honest, though I emphasized how much food I had eaten as well. He clarified that I had not imbibed any alcohol at Denny’s.

I was then asked to step out of the car.

Oh boy.

I was told to lean against the front of the police car, where I went through a battery of tests. The one that stands out is being asked to follow his fingers with my eyes WITHOUT moving my head.

Which I did well enough, apparently, that I was told I was free to go.

Here is the kicker, though.

I had ostensibly been pulled over for speeding.

However, I was not even given a warning, let alone a speeding ticket. And while I was being put through my DUI paces, the other officer was carefully inspecting my black Honda Accord (Massachusetts plates).

My suspicion is they were looking for a car matching my description, and they needed a plausible reason to pull me over.


For the record, that Denny’s closed for good recently.

#83. My favorite question as a child—the one that used to send the adults in my life completely ‘round the bend—was “Howcum?”

#84. One day after school (an early elementary school grade), a family friend named Hank asked me how school had been. I responded that “it was a cinch.” From then on, Hank (later a second father to me before his own untimely death in October 1983), called me “Cinch.”

#85. My father, however, preferred to call me “Pal.”

#86. When I was 13 years old (November or December 1979), I took the est training. While I now view its “teachings” with great skepticism, I enjoyed the experience. My mother spent much of the 1970s exploring all manner of consciousness-raising (or altering—I remember lots of marijuana and green glass jugs of white wine), though when she tried transcendental meditation, she immediately forgot her mantra.

#87. I actually did much the same for a few years in the late 1970s (coinciding, not coincidentally, with the start of adolescence and post-parental-separation moves), becoming fascinated with astrology, card reading and, especially, numerology (Chaldean, not Pythagorean, thank you very much). To this day, despite my capital-s skepticism, I still unconsciously ascertain whether a number (a day of the month, say) is “compatible” with me or not (before dismissing the notion).

But when I met one of my closest friends (his mother later introduced me at his wedding as “my third son”)—literally the first student I met in my SECOND seventh grade—I immediately asked him when his birthday is; all I had with me were a blue three-ring binder and my numerology book.

He told me, and I excitedly responded, “Oh, you’re a 3!” (I am a 3, and 3’s get along with other 3’s, you see.).

#88. Astrology actually led to another lifelong friendship. Just after the end of my freshman year of high school, a friend threw a picnic at nearby Ashbridge Park. I had just had my braces removed, boosting my self-confidence. Spying two girls I recognized from their visit to Harriton High School[6] during the preceding school year sitting in a tree, I climbed up to join them. I do not recall if they were already discussing astrology, or if it emerged organically in the conversation, but it was an immediate ice-breaker.

#89. The first occupation I remember seriously wanting to be “when I grew up” was archaeologist, around 7th grade or so.

#90. I have only been bitten by a dog once. When I was maybe five years old, I climbed over our backyard fence and down a boundary stone wall into the backyard of a house on a parallel street. There, the only truly vicious dog I have even known (all I remember is that it—he?—was black) came out of nowhere and bit my right hand in the fleshy part between the bases of the thumb and forefinger.

That traumatic experience, however, did not dissuade me from wanting a dog. So, one night in early January 1973, my parents and I drove to a pet store near Wilmington, DE (my father knew a guy…), where we acquired a Keeshond. It was my mother’s idea to name him Luvey “because he loves everybody.” This photograph was taken just outside the door of our “penthouse” at the Strand.

Luvey in Atlantic City August 1974 2

He would have been 46 years old (that’s 322 to you and me!) on December 17.

#91. You can have your air guitar. I far prefer air keyboards, with air drummer a distant second.

#92. I have never been arrested.

#93. In the unlikely event I am ever arrested, however, under “distinguishing marks” would appear “White scar under left eyebrow.”

One Saturday or Sunday in the summer of 1974, my father (who knew another guy…) took me for a speedboat ride on the Absecon Inlet (separating Atlantic City from the mainland). We were two of maybe six or seven people on this guy’s boat. At one point, another speedboat zipped by us traveling way too fast and way too close. The resulting wake tipped our boat enough that I went flying into the side of the boat. My head landed on something sharp (or with enough force to break the skin) just above my left eye. A few millimeters lower…

Now, does my father take his profusely-bleeding son directly to the hospital on Ohio Avenue? Nooo…he brings him to his mother at the Strand. After reading him the riot act, she took me to the hospital, where I believe I needed 16 stitches to close the wound.

#94. That arrest report might also include “Small white scar on chin.” That would be from the time I whacked by chin into the kitchen counter, after I slipped trying to climb up to reach something (a cookie? a box of cereal?) in a cabinet.

#95. However, I did not require stitches—or emergency medical treatment of any kind—the first time I was ever in Island Pond, VT.

After the Expos game, my then-girlfriend and I wandered south through Quebec, somehow finding this blink-and-you-miss-it village. We decided to get some exercise by pitching and hitting; we had baseball bats, balls and gloves with us. Doesn’t everybody?

Things were going well until I threw a pitch that caught a bit too much of the plate—and she sent it screaming right into my face.

Luckily, it did not do any actual damage.

Except to my ability to throw a strike, for longer than I want to admit.

#96. My clear favorite “guilty pleasure” movie is Times Square. You can see why this movie would have appealed to 14-year-old me.

#97. I rediscovered it the year I lived in DC. I was so blown away by the soundtrack, I walked miles from my apartment to a downtown store that sold it (on vinyl, of course).

Times Square.JPG

I recently bought a copy of the film on DVD as well; it is a key part of how I came to love film noir.

#98. The first time I ever bought condoms was that September night in 1986. In those days, they were stored behind the counter, meaning you had to ask for them—with everyone listening. As I did so (“ummm, I’ll take the, uhh, the blue box there.”), a friend was standing in line with me.

The next day, he wrote on a piece of paper attached to the door of my room, “A brave man dwells within.”

#99. Next to dogs, my favorite animal is the horse. This is somewhat ironic in that it was horse racing (and cards) that fueled my father’s gambling addiction.

#100. That is why I never gamble.

Until next time…

[1] The Expos lost to the San Francisco Giants 4-1, with John Burkett outdueling Dennis Martinez. While my then-girlfriend and I sat in the leftfield stands, Kevin Mitchell hit a home run which just bounced off my glove—but into the hands of a youngster sitting just in front of me.  That remains the closest I have ever come to catching a ball. http://www.thebaseballcube.com/teams/def_lineups.asp?Y=1990&T=25

[2] I spent the next five nights just south of Chicago; just outside Iowa City, IA; in Fremont, OH; in Pittsburgh, PA; and in my mother’s apartment in Penn Valley, PA (in the Philadelphia suburbs).

[3] Besides the two listed—and, of course, Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia—they are Busch (St.Louis), Shea (New York) and Three Rivers (Pittsburgh).

[4] Citizens Bank (Philadelphia), Fenway (Boston), Oriole Park at Camden Yards (Baltimore)

[5] Well, at least until she married Jed Bark.

[6] Harriton allowed students to bring a guest to classes with them for one day. The picnic hostess and another girl had brought these two friends from a nearby high school. The four girls all knew each other from a local church.

Rest in peace, George Herbert Walker Bush

Late on the night of January 20, 1989, I walked out of Dan’s Cafe—a dive bar in the Adams Morgan section of Washington, DC[1]—after imbibing a few or five or six bottles of Rolling Rock. Clutching my long black overcoat around me, I started to cross 18th street (likely to get a bite to eat, as my apartment on 16th, just south of Columbia, was a few blocks to the east). The headphones of my Walkman covered my ears; I think I was listening to Depeche Mode.

I did not see the car until it was practically upon me. Helpful witnesses later said it was black—or maybe blue or perhaps green. Whatever color it was, it knocked me to the ground without stopping; perhaps because I had no time to stiffen in panic, I only separated my right shoulder.

Earlier that day, I had watched the sitting Vice President sworn in as the 41st president of the United States. In his acceptance speech the previous August, the then-Vice-President had called for a “kinder and gentler nation.”

So naturally, as I lay on the street unable to move, convinced cars would start knocking me between lanes like a human pinball, my first thought was, “So much for kinder and gentler.”


George Herbert Walker Bush, who died Friday night at the age of 94, exemplified a vanishing strain of self-effacing, self-sacrificing American patriotism: son of a United States Senator, heroic Navy pilot in World War II, Yale baseball team captain (light-hitting, solid defensive left-handed first baseman), successful Texas oilman, two-term member of the United States House of Representatives (“House”) before losing the 1970 United States Senate election in Texas to Lloyd Bentsen (who would resurface as an opponent 18 years later), Ambassador to the United Nations, Chairman of the Republican National Committee, envoy to China, and Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (where, unbeknownst to his family, my late father-in-law worked). Bush then served as Vice President of the United States from January 20, 1981 to January 20, 1989—at which point he ascended to the Presidency, the first sitting Vice President to do so since Martin Van Buren in 1837. He was also father to two sons who served a combined 22 years as Florida governor, Texas governor and president. With few exceptions, he tackled these activities with grace, dignity and the desire to serve his country to the best of his considerable abilities.

Because it is one of my primary passions, I write a great deal about American politics on this site, mostly through a data-analytic lens. Inevitably, I referred to President Bush 41 in a number of posts. To honor the memory of this American hero—with whom I rarely agreed, but whom I came greatly to respect—I will tell his story through those posts.


The first inkling I had that someone named George Bush existed came when I was in 8th grade:

In March 1980, a woman named Barbara Bush, whose husband George I vaguely knew was running for the Republican presidential nomination, addressed the student body at Bala Cynwyd Middle School (see Philadelphia Inquirer story below). I remember little of what she said (other than being impressed this engaging woman was speaking to us at all), though I understood she was trying to get us to convince our parents to vote for her husband. That appearance may have helped, because on April 22, former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director George Herbert Walker Bush beat former California governor Ronald Reagan in the Pennsylvania Republican presidential primary, 50 to 43%. Despite that victory, Bush lost the nomination to Reagan, becoming the latter’s vice-presidential running mate.


Bush fit my home state’s Republican Party well in 1980:

Back home, Pennsylvania was narrowly electing a series of liberal-to-moderate Republicans who, again, I admired without always agreeing with them: Senator John Heinz in 1976 (even as [Jimmy] Carter won Pennsylvania by 2.7 percentage points), Governor Richard Thornburgh in 1978, and Senator Arlen Specter in 1980. Heinz easily won reelection twice before dying in a plane crash in 1991 at the age of 52. Like most Pennsylvanians, I was deeply saddened by the loss of this good man. […]  In 1986, I voted for pro-choice Republican Bill Scranton for governor.


I followed the 1988 presidential election in three places. First, I watched the primaries and caucuses in the living room of the off-campus apartment I shared with two other Yale seniors in New Haven, CT. I touched briefly on Bush’s nomination here:

Since 1980, Republicans have tended to nominate the runner-up from the previous contested nomination (Ronald Reagan 1980, G.H.W. Bush 1988, Bob Dole 1996, [John] McCain 2008, Mitt Romney 2012), implying McCain would have been the prohibitive front-runner had he run in 2004 [in an alternate history in which Vice President Al Gore wins the 2000 presidential election].

Next, I watched the Democratic and Republican National Conventions in my mother’s condominium in the Philadelphia suburb of Penn Valley, where I was spending the summer; driving home along Hagys Ford Road one day that August, I heard on the radio that Bush had selected Indiana Senator Dan Quayle to be his running mate.

Finally, I watched the fall election in that Adams Morgan apartment. At an event at the Brookings Institute, where I worked, a few days before the election, I was one of only two people in the audience to raise a hand to the question, “Who here thinks [Massachusetts Governor Michael] Dukakis will win the election?”

Had I listened to my future self, I would have better seen what was coming:

From 1968 through 1988 it was the Republicans who had an even-more-impregnable “red wall,” with 22 states voting for the Republican presidential nominee in six consecutive presidential elections and 13 other states doing so in five of them. The Republicans won the White House in five of these six elections, averaging 417 EV [electoral votes].

Despite not wanting Bush to win, however, I was pleasantly surprised just one day later:

The 1988 presidential campaign was so banal that the Washington Post did not endorse either Bush or Michael Dukakis. Bush’s campaign sank to some particularly ugly depths (Willie Horton, flag-burning, demonizing liberals). The afternoon after Bush won, however, I watched President-elect Bush introduced James Baker as his nominee for Secretary of State. My surprised reaction was “wow, the governing Bush looks like an entirely different cat.” Other Bush Administration picks like Jack Kemp (HUD), Dick Darman (OMB), Thornburgh (Justice), Liddy Dole (Labor), and Brent Scowcroft (National Security Advisor) signaled to me a mature, less-ideological approach to governing.

I watched Bush introduce Baker on a television set just outside my Brookings office, and I followed the Cabinet selections in the New York Times and Washington Post, which I would read each morning over my coffee and bowl of Nut’n’Honey cereal. As for the morning I read excitedly about Kemp’s nomination…well, a gentleman does not kiss and tell.


I have written about the results of the 1988 presidential election in multiple contexts. First, there was the simple—and unusual—fact that Bush’s win marked a third consecutive Republican presidential victory.

Still, it is important to keep in mind that the 2016 U.S. presidential election took place after eight years with one party (Democrats) occupying the White House and no incumbent running. Voters often look to change White House control in these elections: prior to 2016, of the six such elections starting with 1960, the party not occupying the White House had won five of them (1960, 1968, 1976, 2000, 2008). The exception was 1988, when Republican nominee George H. W. Bush beat Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis by 7.7 percentage points and 315 EV.

Second, I wrote this passage in the context of validating my measure (3W-RDM) of how Democratic or Republican state is, relative to the nation:

And had Mondale lost by “only” 7.7 percentage points—as Democrat Michael Dukakis would to Republican George H. W. Bush in 1988—he would also have theoretically won the combined 53 EV of New York (36), Wisconsin (11) and West Virginia (6), boosting his total to 126 EV (better, but still 144 EV shy of the 270 needed to win the White House).

1988 Presidential map

Still, that is close to the 112 EV Dukakis won in 1988. As the purple-inked states on this beautiful hand-drawn map show, Dukakis lost seven states (Illinois, Pennsylvania, Maryland, California, Vermont, Missouri, New Mexico) totaling 125 EV by smaller margins (2.1-5.0 percentage points; mean=3.3) than he did nationally. Had Dukakis lost the election by just 2.7 points, he would theoretically have won 237 EV, only 33 shy of the necessary 270.

What I did not know then, however, was that Bush’s 1988 victory would mark the beginning of the end of a singular American political era:

Four years earlier, however, G. H. W. Bush had won 53.4% of the popular vote against Democrat Michael Dukakis (45.6%), winning 40 states and 426 EV; Bush beat Dukakis 53.9 to 46.1% in the two-party vote. Bush’s near-landslide victory (in the Electoral College, anyway) meant that Republicans would control the White House for a third consecutive four-year term.

In the six presidential elections from 1968 through 1988 (Table 1), Republicans won the presidency five times, four times by landslides (1972, 1980, 1984) or near-landslides (1988). The one Democratic victor was Jimmy Carter in 1976, in the wake of Republican President Richard Nixon’s Watergate-related resignation in August 1974, Nixon’s pardon by his successor (Gerald Ford) and various Ford gaffes. Still, Carter only managed to beat Ford by 2.1 percentage points (50.1 to 48.0%) and 57 EV (297-240); Ford actually won more states: 27 to 23 (plus DC). In fact, had Ford flipped 5,559 votes in Ohio (25 EV) and 7,232 votes in Mississippi (7 EV)—just 12,791 votes out of 81,540,780 cast, he would have won 272 EV and held on to the presidency.

Overall in those six presidential elections, the Democratic candidates averaged 42.9% of the popular vote (45.1% of the two-party vote), victories in nine states (plus DC) and 113.0 EV. The White House essentially “belonged” to the Republicans during this period.

During the same time period, however, Democrats controlled the House and held a majority of governorships. They controlled the Senate for 18 of 24 years, excepting only 1981-87. Following the 13 even-numbered elections from 1968 through 1992, Democrats averaged majorities of all votes cast for Senate, House and governor, for an average of 54.5 Senate seats, 262.1 House seats and 31.0 governor’s mansions.

In other words, from 1968 through 1992, while Republicans held a near lock on the White House, Democrats controlled Congress (both Houses for 20 years) and a majority of governor’s mansions. One interpretation is that voters preferred Republicans in the White House to conduct foreign policy (i.e., fight the Cold War) and preferred Democrats to manage domestic affairs (i.e., protect entitlements).

As for the single Bush (41) Administration, I wrote little beyond this:

Clearly, history is not always predictive. The president’s party lost an average of 13.8 House seats in the four qualifying midterm elections from 1962-1982, yet President George H.W. Bush’s Republicans only lost 8 House seats in 1990, while President Bush was still receiving plaudits for the first Gulf War and the end of the Cold War. [emphasis added]

I also obliquely referenced the event that continues to define that Administration more than any other.

In a subsequent post, I will examine the defining events of 1998 through 1994 in more detail, moving from then-Vice-President G. H. W. Bush’s acceptance speech at the 1988 Republican National Convention through the wildly successful (for Republicans) 1994 midterm elections.

In his August 1988 acceptance speech, Bush presented a scenario in which the Democratic-majority Congress would keep asking him to raise taxes, and he would refuse each time, finally insisting, “Read my lips: no new taxes!” However, facing a ballooning budget deficit, Bush was forced to relent (a decision that likely cost him reelection, even as it paved the way for the budget surpluses of the late 1990s); on November 5, 1990, he signed the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1990. This compromise budget bill included a modest tax increase on the incomes of the wealthiest Americans, leading conservative commentator Pat Buchanan to challenge Bush in the 1992 New Hampshire Primary.

Incidentally, the events I was going to examine in that never-written post are thoroughly examined in this engaging new book by the indefatigable Steve Kornacki.



History shows that President Bush might have a tough time winning reelection even if he had not broken his “no new taxes” pledge”:

The 1856 US presidential election was the first in which a Democratic nominee (James Buchanan) faced a Republican nominee (John C. Fremont); Buchanan won. Since then there have been nine elections (1880, 1884, 1908, 1912, 1932, 1944, 1948, 1952, 1992) in which the party controlling the White House sought a fourth, fifth or sixth consecutive term; that party won only four (44%) of those elections.

And, in fact:

On Tuesday, November 3, 1992, [Arkansas Governor Bill] Clinton captured 43.0% of the popular vote cast for president, 5.6 percentage points more than G. H. W. Bush (37.4%) and 24.0 percentage points more than Independent H. Ross Perot (19.0%). Considering only votes cast for the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates (“two-party vote”), Clinton beat Bush 53.5 to 46.5%.

Clinton also won 32 states, plus the District of Columbia (DC), for a total of 370 electoral votes (EV); Bush received only 168 EV.

In other words, in just four years, Democrats had increased their share of the two-party popular vote by 7.4 percentage points, flipped 22 states from Democratic to Republican, and increased their EV total from 112 to 370.

That is an astonishing turnaround.


Republicans blamed Bill Clinton for breaking their iron grip on the White House, and they have been punishing him (and his wife) for it ever since.

Just like that, a new American political era emerged:

With the elections of 1992 and 1994, the Democratic and Republican Parties switched governing roles. The Democratic Party went from being primarily a Congressional and state-house party to primarily a national (i.e., White House) party, while the Republican Party went in the opposite direction.

In the seven presidential elections from 1992 through 2016, Democrats won the presidential popular vote six of seven times (despite only winning the Electoral College—and thus the White House—four times), the exception being 2004, when Republican George W. Bush won reelection by 2.4 percentage points (50.7 to 48.3%) over Democrat John Kerry, capturing 286 EV to Kerry’s 251. […] Overall in those seven presidential elections, the Democratic candidates averaged 48.7% of the popular vote (52.0% of the two-party vote), victories in 23.7 states (plus DC) and 313.4 EV.

Meanwhile, since January 1995, Democrats have only controlled the House and held a majority of governorships for four years (2007-11), while controlling the Senate for only nine-plus years (May 2001[5]-January 2003, 2007-15). Following the 12 even-numbered elections from 1994 through 2016, while Democrats managed rough parity in Senate votes, they lost the overall vote for House and governor, earning an average 48.3 Senate seats, 208.7 House seats and 20.7 governor’s mansions.

This switch was accompanied by a drastic makeover of the Republican Party.

I plan to argue in a later post that something began to go haywire with the Republican Party right around Bush’s failed reelection campaign in 1992 and the subsequent Republican takeover of the House and Senate in 1994. I now feel that the party—with a few possible exceptions like Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker—has become completely unhinged.


That President George Herbert Walker Bush really was a different kind of cat is best illustrated by the fact he pointedly invited President Donald J. Trump to his funeral, despite no love being lost between the two Republican presidents. Bush simply believed this is how things are supposed to be done.

And finally:

What so fascinates me about the 1948 presidential election is that while Harry Truman is my favorite president, the more I learn about Tom Dewey, particularly his prosecutorial efforts in the mid-1930s, the more intrigued I am. Love Truman though I do, I think Dewey would have been a solid president, not dissimilar to Eisenhower or the underrated first George Bush. 

Just as Truman’s presidency has been dramatically positively reassessed in the 66 years since he left office (to the point where he was recently ranked 6th-best), I firmly believe that of Bush 41 will also be.

Rest in peace, Mr. President. Your mission is complete.

Until next time…

[1] It was the sort of place where the men’s room, which locked from the outside, had a sign on its door reading “Please do not use drugs in the bathroom.”

Brett Kavanaugh and (not so much) I at Yale

I post this on my 52nd birthday (it is now past midnight in Boston). Over the last two years—since I turned 50—I have spent a great deal of time contemplating my “identity.” Indeed, my first post, in December 2016, was an exercise in contrasting autobiographical framing. Since that split-screen introduction, I have been coming to terms with what I have learned through genetic testing and my dogged investigation of the circumstances surrounding my in-utero adoption.

One clear conclusion is that I owe my fortunate—almost (but not quite) “privileged”—life to that adoption.

That notion of privilege—of “white male privilege,” in particular—came into very sharp focus for me (and for the country) last week.

Like many Americans, I spent Thursday, September 27, 2018 riveted by the testimony of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and United States Court of Appeals Circuit Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh before the United States Senate (“Senate”) Judiciary Committee. Our living room television was tuned to MSNBC from 9:30 am to just after 11:00 pm, with a brief interim in the late afternoon to take our daughters to the library and swimming class then let them watch their own shows in the early evening.

And then I spent Friday, September 28, 2018 equally riveted by the decision of Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ) to condition his vote to approve Judge Kavanaugh’s nomination to be an Associate Judge of the United States Supreme Court on the final vote being delayed by no more than one week so the FBI could conduct a supplemental background investigation into a series of credible accusations of sexual assault made against Judge Kavanaugh. Although the efficacy of that investigation is now in some doubt.

Setting aside the fact I am a political junkie who closely follows events of this nature and a natural human curiosity to see and hear Dr. Ford tell her story, I was particularly riveted by what I recently learned about my personal connection to Judge Brett Kavanaugh.


Just after 6 pm on Thursday, September 20, 2018, as I was sitting on the sidelines of our eldest daughter’s soccer practice, I noticed a missed call and text message. Both were from the identical 917 area code telephone number; that area code covers the five boroughs of New York City.

The text message read as follows:

Hey Matt, it’s Ben Protess from the New York Times. I’m working on a story that I wanted to run by you. Can I grab a minute? Many thanks.

I was skeptical—though I could not imagine why anybody would prank me in quite that way. And I quickly ascertained a Ben Protess writes for the New York Times, though I could not see how any of his areas of investigative focus applied to me. Perhaps it was something I had written on this blog?

After consulting with my wife Nell, who saw no harm in returning the call, I dialed the 917 number.

“This is Ben.”

I introduced myself.

He thanked me for returning his call, and we chatted for a few minutes…

…and that was how I learned that Judge Kavanaugh was a fellow Stilesian, though he was Class of 1987, while I was Class of 1988.


I wrote recently about the residential college system at Yale University, where I earned a Bachelor’s Degree in political science in 1988:

“When I was an undergraduate at Yale, there were 12 residential colleges; I was in Ezra Stiles College (class of 1988). These were intended to be smaller communities—each with its own residential building(s) with interior courtyard, dining hall, library, seminar rooms, Master and Dean, etc.—within the larger community of undergraduates.”

To promote further identification with one’s residential college (purportedly randomly assigned, though special requests are sometimes honored), freshmen in 10 of the 12 (when I enrolled in 1984) colleges actually lived in a college-specific “hall” on Old Campus; freshmen in Silliman and Timothy Dwight move directly into their respective colleges (as do freshmen in the recently-opened Benjamin Franklin and Pauli Murray colleges). Two of these halls had an odd “rivalry”: periodically, a student from one hall would yell, “Wright Bites!” to which a student from the other hall would yell “Durfee Sucks!” Wright Hall (now Lanman-Wright Hall) houses Pierson and Saybrook freshmen, while Durfee houses Morse freshmen (at least, they did in the 1984-85 school year).

Ezra Stiles (ES) freshmen live in Lawrance Hall; two of its four entryways (A and B, I believe) are pictured below (photograph taken on the weekend of my May 1988 commencement).

Lawrence Hall May 1988

Here is a view from College Street, looking north-by-northeast. Lawrance Hall is just beyond the tall structure in the center of the photograph, though the building just beyond the black truck looks essentially the same.

Old Campus May 1988 College Street

Each of the five floors had a suite housing six students, divided into a common room, bathroom, two double and two singles; I occupied a single in the suite on the 4th floor spanning entryways A to B.

There were also smaller suites in the basement of each entryway. Judge Kavanaugh occupied one in D entryway his freshman year—the year before I arrived.

Adding to the separation is that freshmen generally eat in a cavernous dining hall called Commons, while upperclassmen eat in their residential college dining hall, though with a valid dining hall card you could eat in any Yale dining hall, including the graduate school.

In other words, when I was a freshman, I would have had minimal, if any, contact with a sophomore like Brett Kavanaugh. Only when I was a sophomore and junior—and he was a junior and senior—did we both live in Ezra Stiles College (whose courtyard is pictured below in May 1988).


However, as I told Mr. Protess, I was not aware (or I had forgotten) Brett Kavanaugh and I had both lived in Ezra Stiles College for two years until our telephone conversation.

Following that revelation, I asked Mr. Protess how he had found me, and he cryptically observed the Yale Daily News archives are publicly available. And, in fact, I had appeared in a story my junior year about winning a “guess the Grammy Award winners” contest sponsored by the campus radio station. I won $25, but I was also supposed to program the station for an hour; that would have been a blast.

And then we got to the heart of the matter: did I know any ES’87 folks to whom he could talk about Judge Kavanaugh? Specifically, did I know anyone who would know something about an event that took place in Lawrance Hall during his freshman year? It is almost certain (though I do not know for sure) that he was seeking information about the not-yet-public allegations made by fellow ES’87 alumna Deborah Ramirez.

Unfortunately, as much as I was drawing a blank on Judge Kavanaugh, I could not remember any names from the class ahead of me; in the moment, I blanked that the husband of a fellow ES’88 alum was ES’87. What I could do, however, was reach out to the two dozen or so ES’88 alums with whom I am friends on Facebook. They did not remember much about Judge Kavanaugh either, though I learned at least one other New York Times reporter as well as a Bloomberg News reporter was also calling ES’88 alums. I also learned (as has since been reported) that “Jamie” Roche was a freshman-year roommate of Judge Kavanaugh, and that a fellow member of his junior varsity basketball team had written a heartbreaking Facebook post about the Brett Kavanaugh he knew versus the Brett Kavanaugh emerging through the allegations.

As with Judge Kavanaugh, I do not remember Ms. Ramirez or Mr. Roche…or two other Class of 1987 alumnae who have spoken publicly about Judge Kavanaugh.

But here is the thing. The residential separation of Yale freshmen (in 10 residential colleges) may promote strong bonding within members of the same residential college and class but it also delayed routine interaction with upperclassmen for one year, after which social circles have already formed. It is certainly possible I encountered Brett Kavanuagh in the dining hall lines or in my capacity as (in consecutive years starting with freshman year) Secretary, Fundraising Committee Chair and Chairperson of the ES College Council, but if so, I do not recall these encounters.

Still, I would have shared the following volumes with Mr. Protess had I had any listing Brett Kavanaugh, though I suspect he or one of his colleagues eventually found a copy of one or both. I had forgotten until I pulled it off the shelf that we referred to The Old Campus as “the face book.”

Class of 1988 Old Campus

Ezra Stiles Directory 1987-88

When I told Mr. Protess that, as a natural archivist, I had kept copies of these two volumes, he said “Bless you for doing so.”

You’re welcome. Thank you for performing the republic-saving work of independent investigative journalism.


If I have one quibble with the New York Times’ reporting on Ms. Ramirez’s allegation, it is its overly simplistic division of Yale students into “moneyed elites” and “lower middle-class outsiders.” Those folks were certainly there, but the vast majority of my fellow students came from the same background as me—middle class families who were not part of the nation’s financial and/or political elite. When I attended my 30-year reunion this past summer (driving to New Haven, CT for the day with our two daughters, who had a fabulous time exploring the campus and making friends with fellow alum’s children), I enjoyed a panel discussion on our current political climate by fellow members of the Class of 1988. One of them had written a book detailing the liberal egalitarianism that had emerged at Yale—once a conservative bastion of the nation’s most elite sons—in the decades prior to our enrollment. In this newly meritocratic Yale, what counted most when I matriculated there were your abilities and achievements, not your social status or family history—or which elite prep school you attended.

Judge Kavanaugh is being pilloried (rightly, in my opinion) for the privileged-white-male attitudes he displayed in his appallingly rude behavior towards the Democratic members of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday; this exchange (with a fellow alumna [Class of 1982], no less) particularly upset me. When I was at Yale, I certainly encountered a few white male students with the same attitudes, one of whom (the roommate of friends in a different residential college) could barely hide his contempt for me—a non-athletic (then, anyway) middle class non-legacy who had attended public schools and was accepted into Yale (after being wait-listed) solely on the strength of his grades, test scores and activities. At least, that is why I think he despised me. All these years later, it hardly matters.

But it pains me to think that casual observers of Brett Kavanaugh’s smug contemptuous behavior think it in any way reflects the reality my friends and I experienced at Yale. Far from “entitled,” the vast majority of us did not attend elite prep schools nor did we come from well-connected families (my widowed mother owned a small carpet and upholstery cleaning company). Instead, we worked hard both to be admitted there and to succeed there, expecting no special treatment.

So, when Judge Kavanaugh answered (or, rather, did not answer) questions with some variation of “I got into Yale College,” I wanted to scream, “Yeah, so the bleepity-frick what? What does that prove? That your character is revealed by your resume? No, sir, it is not. And please do not lump my beloved fellow alumnae/i in with your irrelevant, temper-tantrum-driven defense of your (alleged) misdeeds.”

And one more thing. The stories of Brett Kavanaugh and his circle of friends, male and female, engaging in seemingly endless drinking (and vomiting in the bathrooms) do not paint an accurate picture of what life was like in Lawrance Hall in the mid-1980s. This is not to say there was no drinking at Yale, despite the drinking age in Connecticut being 21 when I matriculated there.

I certainly did my share of (illegal) drinking at Yale, at least after my sophomore year. Through the middle of that year, I was scared to consume any alcohol, believing I had an addictive personality (and I had vivid memories of how goofy my mother looked when she and her friends would smoke pot; she actually told me that I was not allowed to do drugs until I was 32 years old, which was when she started smoking pot). Plus, my primary experience with alcohol had been the watered-down swill my father drank when he took me to Philadelphia Phillies baseball games at long-gone Veterans Stadium and the Mogen David wine proffered at our large extended-family Seders. However, something that year tempted me to try a bottle of Molson Golden—and it was good.  Until I turned 21 at the start of my senior year (prompting my roommates to take me to the now-defunct Gentrys’ for my first legal drink; I panicked and ordered a gin and tonic I did not love), I would have older friends order Molson for me at pizzerias like Broadway (which, sadly, no longer exists), Naples or Yorkside; this was before I discovered Scotch whiskey my senior year.

That November, I decided to attend “The Game,” held in New Haven that year. I was home in Penn Valley, PA for Thanksgiving break, so I awoke early that frigid Saturday morning planning to eat breakfast and drive the three-plus hours to New Haven. Somehow, I skipped (or skimped on) breakfast. Arriving at the off-campus apartment I shared with two other ES’88 men, I though I would prepare a thermos of hot chocolate and peppermint schnapps. The only problem was that all we had was a bottle of peach schnapps and a little bit of orange juice—the key components of a fuzzy navel. And instead of a thermos, I found a plastic pitcher—meaning that what I brought to the game with me was a large amount of peach schnapps mixed with a small amount of orange juice. This combination was quite delicious on my empty stomach during the first half of the game, as I sat and shivered with one of my roommates and his older brother, who had driven us to the Yale Bowl. The second half of the game, however, I spent mostly in the men’s bathroom “reliving” what I had drunk in the first half. And I cannot apologize enough to my roommate’s older brother, in whose car I puked on the ride back to our apartment. I was supposed to drive another Stilesian home to Pennsylvania that night…but clearly that did not happen. Thanks to a spectacular cheeseburger sub from here, however, I got through the night and was perfectly fine in the morning (thanks to the metabolism of a 21-year-old). I drove my friend home, with no hard feelings. With all that, however, I could not stand the taste of peach anything for more than 30 years.

As a fellow ES’88 alum pointed out on Facebook, the fact that few of us recall Brett Kavanaugh likely stems from his affiliation with the hard-drinking Delta Kappa Epsilon (DKE) fraternity. My understanding is that the residential college system emerged in the 1930’s as a counter to fraternity culture (Yale did not admit female undergraduates until 1969). Despite that, a number of fraternities operated on the fringes of our consciousness (well, my consciousness, anyway), though their actions never reflected the student body as a whole. And I once had the pleasure of “passing the Cups” at Mory’s—but that felt separate from the broader Yale experience.

The point being: Brett Kavanaugh existed in a social/drinking circle at Yale that the vast majority of my classmates did not—and, partly as a result, he left little-to-no impression on us. And his white male prep school entitlement is a far cry from the experience I had at Yale, where I befriended men and women like me: middle-to-upper-middle class overachievers who were admitted on merit and continued to work hard to excel (or just survive) there. That is the Yale I am proud I attended, and the one I celebrated with a magnificent group of friends this past May.

One final thought.

I have not addressed the OTHER social circle in which Brett Kavanaugh moved: the elite prep schools of Washington, DC and its close Maryland suburbs (where the man I am nearly-certain was my genetic father was raised—though he attended public high school, as did I in suburban Philadelphia). This harrowing expose, written by my wife Nell’s close childhood friend, succinctly captures a dark reality of that world: the drunken predatory boys only too willing to take sexual advantage of just-as-drunk girls. Nell attended one of those all-girl high schools and has stated multiple times in the last two weeks she could easily have been one of those girls, but for a large and chivalrous high school boyfriend.

I would like to shake the hand of that boyfriend in gratitude someday.

Until next time…