Dispatches from Brookline: Home Schooling and Social Distancing IV

On Monday, March 23, 2020, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker called for the closure of all non-essential businesses and asked residents to stay in their home as much as possible: to “shelter in place.” The order went in to effect at noon on Tuesday, March 24, and it will stay in effect until noon at April 7.

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

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After a successful, albeit exhausting, first week of home schooling, we laid low over the weekend.

The highlight of Saturday stemmed from an idea our older daughter had: she desperately wanted a burrito, which she would happily eat at every meal. Choosing not to walk down the street to our preferred takeout joint, we explored delivery options instead…and discovered that our favorite Mexican restaurant—a drive of at least 20 minutes away in Cambridge—would deliver to us. It felt like such a ridiculous treat, and the food was so good, I did not mind they had given soft, not crunchy, tacos. While I ate my food and worked on my “lectures,” Nell and the girl swatched Onward, which emotionally wrecked my wife.

Later that night, I walked our golden retriever up to our local dog park—and I mean “up;” Brookline is renowned for its many streets that slope upward at nearly a 45-degree angle. To be honest, I needed the outing and the exercise more than she did. We stayed about 15 minutes, as she ecstatically chased an increasingly-filthy fuzzy ball hurled by a Chuck-It. Returning home, I put her to bed, bathed and settled down to watch the excellent I Wake Up Screaming via Turner Classic Movies OnDemand.

The choice of film–other than its sudden aviability–was in keeping with my discussion of film noir with the girls the previous day, during which I used “oneiric” to describe the dream-like quality of many films noir. This spurred a conversation about we all are having intense, more-anxiety-than-nightmare dreams during our “lockdown.”

Also in keeping with Friday’s “lecture,” our younger daughter and I watched Stranger on the Third Floor on Sunday evening. She very much enjoyed it, patiently allowing me to pause the movie at times to explain the difference between “high-key” and “low-key” lighting.

As to why we watched this particular film, here is an excerpt from Chapter 6 of the book I am writing—and need to finish soon:

Another myth to be exploded was film noir’s origin story. In the traditional telling, first outlined in Schrader’s essay, waves of mostly-German émigré filmmakers arrive in Hollywood throughout the 1930s, bringing with them the cinematic techniques of Expressionism and, later, French poetic realism. Vincent Brook, as we saw in the Introduction to Part 1, argues these filmmakers were often deeply and specifically influenced by their Jewish heritage, a primary reason they abandoned Europe, however temporarily, in the first place. Meanwhile, starting in 1931, Universal Studios—aided by German cinematographer Karl Freund, who had arrived in Hollywood two years earlier—makes a series of dark shadowy horror films (about which more in Chapter 8).  That same year, rival studios like Warner-First National, later Warner Brothers, start to produce high-quality gangster films, inspired by the lawlessness of Prohibition, ironically set to be repealed just two years later. Needing work for this influx of cinematic talent, studio heads take a long second look at works of hard-boiled crime fiction, ultimately relegating their new talent to the B-movie backlots to turn those works into films. Applying everything they know about filmmaking, and drawing upon the visual style of the popular horror films and the rapid-fire plots of the gangster films, they make films that would later be labeled film noir. The quality of these films is only enhanced throughout the 1940s by a slow loosening of the restrictive Hays Code of “voluntary” censorship, Italian neo-realism and technological advances. And the first of these films is almost certainly a 64-minute-long B-movie directed by an Eastern European émigré named Boris Ingster—and featuring an Eastern European actor named Peter Lorre—called Stranger on the Third Floor. Released on August 16, 1940, it has 33.0 POINTS, tying it for 71st overall—and, if forced to choose, it is what I designate the first film noir as commonly understood today.

For an explanation of POINTS, please see here.

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On Monday, March 23, 2020, I came downstairs to find this in the “classroom.”

March 23

The night before, Nell had drawn this homage to author Mo Willems—whom we once met in Maine—on the ever-popular white board.

Happy Monday Gerald and Piggy

Our younger daughter had again had a very rough morning—literally getting no work done even as our older daughter continued to thrive; indeed, on Tuesday, the latter would finish her work by at 11:30 am then ask “Is that it?!?” Still, the former daughter recovered sufficiently to sit attentively through the first hour of “Pop school,” during which we discussed the history and composition of American political parties.

March 23

For…reasons…our daughters have assigned nicknames to some of our early national leaders. Alexander Hamilton is “Hottie” Hamilton, while his rival Thomas Jefferson is “Smoking Hot” Jefferson. Our seventh president is now, unfortunately, “A**hole Jackson.” Our older daughter thought the name “Martin Van Buren” sounded “nice,” but she did not assign him a nickname.

We used two handouts to explore two ways to understand contemporary political parties:

  1. Elected officials and voters who share a common philosophy of government and policy preferences
  2. Coalitions of groups based on such factors as demographics, socioeconomic status, religiosity and cultural outlook.

The first sheet condensed an analysis I performed in August 2017 of issues on which a majority of Democrats—and often Independents—differed from a majority of Republicans. Our older daughter, fully in the throes of puberty and naively exploring her own sexuality, was particularly interested in partisan stances on LGBTQ+ rights.

Issue Differences Democrat v Republican

Whatever makes you happy, kid.

The second sheet, however, provoked the most interest. Less so from our fading younger daughter, but definitely from the older daughter, who delighted in reading aloud for Daddy to note on the white board which groups had voted, on average over the previous four presidential elections, at least 55% for the Democratic nominee or the Republican nominee; data taken from CNN exit polls conducted in 2004, 2008, 2012 and 2016.

How Groups Voted for President 2004-16.docx

You can see how that ended, complete with the tissues I use in lieu of a proper eraser:

Group voting for president

Following a break of an hour or so, we reconvened to begin to learn about probability. Which meant we each flipped a penny 30 times; by a neat fluke, in total, we had 45 heads and 45 tails—there was an a priori 8.3% chance this would happen. Then we rolled a die 30 times—the totals diverged sharply from 1/6 for each number; the number two noticeably received very little love. Our younger daughter asked to record my rolls on the white board, and, regretfully, I grew testy with her when she did not write numbers evenly on the row. I apologized immediately; clearly sheltering in place takes its toll on everyone at some point.

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Knowing the Commonwealth would be shuttering its doors the following day even more than it already had, I was tasked with making a run to our local Star Market. I chose to drive to one ten minutes away on Commonwealth Avenue, a stone’s throw from the main campus of Boston University; not surprisingly, we call it “the BU Star.” It normally closes at midnight, and with the campus all-but-deserted I thought this would be a relatively sane place to search for the 27 items listed in a text message from Nell on my iPhone, mostly varieties of fresh fruit and vegetable.

I never got the chance to determine it sanity, however. When I drove by its lower rear entrance, I could see the vast parking lot to my left was practically empty. Nonetheless, I parked and walked across the street to the locked sliding glass doors. A series of notices taped to those doors informed me this Star now closes at 8 pm every night.

Rather than turn around and drive home, though, I realized I was enjoying being out of the apartment and decided to drive over the nearby Charles River into Cambridge, through Harvard Square—eerily quiet—and north on Massachusetts Avenue to Porter Square. Like the BU Star, the Star Market used to be open 24 hours a day; it was my primary grocery store when I lived one block away in Somerville between September 1989 and February 2001. Driving to this Star always feels a bit like traveling back in time, with many landmarks remaining from two, three decades ago.

This Star now closes at 8 pm as well, meanwhile, which did not really surprise me. The silver lining is that a CVS sits in the same Porter Square parking lot; it is mandated by law never to close so that it can dispense emergency medications at any time of the day. When Nell nearly “broke her face” falling into a gate latch four years ago this May, this is where I acquired her pain medications after she was released from the hospital at around 1 am.

The older, deeply-freckled, red-haired manager of the CVS wore a blue face mask and darker-blue gloves. There was a strip of duct tape on the carpeting every six feet reminding patrons to observe social distancing. I collected what foodstuffs from the list I could find—including fresh-looking cut strawberries in clear plastic containers—and went to a register to pay. The manager scanned and helped bag my groceries—using the reusable bags I always keep in my car–as we chatted amiably.

As I thanked him for being there, he pointed out a woman I had noticed earlier—heavy-set, a bit unkempt and of indeterminate age—hunched over a wheelchair loaded with items she was pushing slowly around the store.

“I have to worry about thieves,” he said.

“Really? Her?” I responded, or words to that effect.

“Last week she managed to get all the razors…This never happens when George is in charge.”

He may not have been that upset, though, as he cheerfully handed me four dollars bills and some change—“You could have bought one more thing!”—before gently warning me not to forget my iPhone.

My route back to Brookline took me past the 7-Eleven on Market Street in the Boston neighborhood of Brighton, which was also still open. They had respectable-looking bananas, limes, lemons and small red and green apples, so I purchased a handful of each along with a few other items. Returning home five or so minutes later, I thoroughly washed my hands before putting away the four total bags of groceries.

A few hours later, as I was preparing a steaming-hot bath, Nell—who had gone to sleep hours earlier but now was restlessly tossing and turning—informed me she had put her wakefulness to good use by placing an Amazon Fresh order on her iPhone. She added that rather than give the recommended $10 tip, she chose to give $25 instead.

“Was that right?” she asked me as I soaked sleepily.

Of course it was,” I assured her.

When Nell placed the order, meanwhile, she thought it would arrive Tuesday night at 6 pm, only to realize later that morning it would not arrive until Thursday.

C’est la vie.

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The next afternoon, Tuesday, March 24, 2020, I came downstairs to find this in the “classroom.” Apparently there was no “word of the day.”

March 24

“FATHER COLLEGIO” did not start until 2:52 pm, as I was moving slowly this day. Once we assembled, though, after a BRIEF review of political parties, I began to tell the story of the 2000 presidential election by way of introducing American presidential elections generally and the Electoral College specifically. And our younger daughter was riveted.

March 24

The night before, Nell and I had discussed whether she should start taking her Ritalin on weekday mornings again. The last time she had taken any was two Thursdays earlier, her last day at her elementary school before it temporarily closed due to COVID-19, in part because we thought it was why she had been having a hard time falling asleep at night recently.

But despite refusing to take any of “her medicine” that morning, she was fully attentive and engaged as I described watching CNN continually reverse itself on who had won Florida that November night in 2000. Her attention did not wane as I walked through the history and defenses of the Electoral College, breaking more than 200 years of elections into a handful of epochs. We concluded with a discussion of how few states actually appeared to be in play as the 2016 presidential election approached—mooting the argument repealing the Electoral College would limit campaigning only to the most populous areas. At this point, our older daughter turned to her and said, “You probably don’t even remember that election. You were only [pause for arithmetic] six.”

I reminded them how both had cried the following morning upon learning that Hillary Clinton had not, in fact, been elected the first female president.

Breaking at 3:45 exactly, we reconvened one hour later to do two things as our “applied math” lesson:

Discuss how exactly Clinton lost the Electoral College in 2016 while winning the national popular vote

How Hillary Clinton Lost in 2016.docx

This is where our older daughter perked up again. While both daughters read from the one-page sheet, it was the older daughter who said “Wow!” every time I described how the Republican percentage of the non-urban vote in the pivotal states of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin had skyrocketed between 2012 and 2016. And when we were finished, this is what the white board looked like.

Discussing 2016 election

Incidentally, you may find the answer to the question posed in the upper right-hand corner of the white board here.

I also used my wall maps of the 1988 and 1992 presidential elections to help to illustrate why the notion of a Democratic “blue wall” was absurd—voting patterns can clearly change dramatically from one election to the next. Those wall maps, by the way, are covering up an original painting by my maternal first cousin once removed; yes, that really is what my great-aunt and uncle named her. 

Color in a blank map to show current state partisanship

A few years ago, I developed 3W-RDM to assess how much more or less Democratic a state is—at least at the presidential level—than the nation as a whole.

States Ordered from Most to Least Democratic

Using the attached list of states and the District of Columbia, we each colored in our blank map as follows:

  • Dark blue = ≥10 percentage points (“points”) more Democratic
  • Light blue = 3-10 points more Democratic
  • Purple = between 3 points more Republican and 3 points more Democratic
  • Light red/pink = 3-10 points more Republican
  • Dark red = ≥10 percentage points (“points”) more Republican

Given how much both our daughters love to draw—they doodle and do other art projects as they sit and listen to me talk—this was easily their favorite afternoon activity so far. Even as our younger daughter was trying to keep up with which states were which—she got there soon enough—our older daughter was touting her “perfectionism” in carefully coloring in each state. She even gently chided me for my blunt-instrument approach to filling in “all those islands off of Alaska,” which she delicately colored one by one.

Hand drawn Democratic strength map

This is what my final map looked like. I may not be as good at drawing as my cousin, or even my wife and daughters, but I still think I produced a solid work of art, despite the single sweep of dark red across the Aleutian Islands.

Until next time…please stay safe and healthy…

Yeah, 2016 was awful, but…

Let’s put aside, for now, what a band/choir consisting of David Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen, George Michael, Merle Haggard, Greg Lake, Keith Emerson, Maurice White, Glenn Frey, Mose Allison, Leon Russell, Sharon Jones and who-am-I-forgetting would sound like. Or what sort of film Robert Stigwood (Producer), Garry Marshall (Director) and Vilmos Zsigmond (Cinematographer) could have created (or, for that matter, what television show Grant Tinker could have green-lighted) for a cast consisting of Alan Rickman, Gene Wilder, Debbie Reynolds, Carrie Fisher, Abe Vigoda, Ron Glass, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Michelle Morgan, Jon Polito, Van Williams, Anton Yelchin, Robert Vaughn, William Schallert, George Kennedy and who-else-am-I-forgetting. Or what our culturo-political world would have been like if it had never included Muhammad Ali, John Glenn, Gwen Ifill, Fidel Castro, Richard Adams, Harper Lee, Kevin Meaney and no-really-who-else-am-I-forgetting.

Let’s also put aside, for now, the open wounds—across the entire political spectrum—resulting from the 2016 United States elections and the Brexit vote.

I will put aside, for now, the anxiety and trepidation I felt as I approached my 50th birthday. Because, you know what, the day—which became days—I turned 50 were terrific.

Here are six other positive moments (in no particular order) worth remembering as we prepare to lock 2016 into a custom-made Pandorica.

Chicago Cubs win the World Series. It does not matter if you prefer the White Sox, or even if you are not a baseball fan. When a professional franchise as storied and long-suffering as the Chicago Cubs wins its first championship in 108 years, that is an extraordinary thing. Even more extraordinary is the fact that this team fell behind three wins to one to a very talented and determined Cleveland Indians team, and needed to beat the 2014 Cy Young Award winner, Corey Kluber, to win the deciding Game 7. If only Harry Caray had been around to see it.

Kirk Douglas turns 100. In a year where it seemed like we were grieving the loss of a beloved celebrity every other day, a number of them continue to thrive into their 90s (Betty White, Dick Van Dyke, Don Rickles, Jerry Lewis, Cloris Leachman—even Queen Elizabeth II, who turned 90 on April 21). Topping them all is Spartacus himself. Born Issur Danielovitch Demsky on December 9, 1916, Kirk Douglas made his film debut 70 years ago in a film noir called The Strange Love of Martha Ivers. Indeed, eight of his first 16 films (Ivers, Out of the Past, I Walk Alone, Champion, Young Man With a Horn, Ace in the Hole, Detective Story, The Bad and the Beautiful), all made between 1946 and 1952, can be considered film noir. In my opinion, he is nothing short of brilliant in any of them (well, OK, I have yet to see Champion).

A woman is the Democratic nominee for President of the United States. Love Hillary Clinton, hate her, or something in between: after 228 years of exclusively male major-party nominees for president, a major American political party nominated a woman. Full stop.

The path is even clearer now for the likes of Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand, Amy Klobuchar, Kamala Harris, Tammy Baldwin, Tammy Duckworth, Catherine Cortes-Masto and other Democratic women, plus Nikki Haley, Joni Ernst, Mary Fallin, Condoleeza Rice, Shelley Moore Capito and other Republican women. My daughters could well have at least one female president in their lifetimes.

A political revolution. When Senator Bernie Sanders (Independent-VT), a self-proclaimed democratic socialist, announced on April 29, 2015 that he would seek the 2016 Democratic nomination for president, he was languishing at 9% in national Democratic presidential nomination polls. As low as that was, it was already an improvement from the 3% he was garnering three months earlier.

No matter. When the revolutionary dust had settled, Sanders had won 23 of 57 nominating contests; including 11 of 17 caucuses. Overall, his 13.1 million votes accounted for 43.3% of the total Democratic primary and caucus vote (47.1% outside the 11 states of the Confederacy). You can argue which was the bigger accomplishment, Sanders’ expectation-smashing performance against the heavily-favored Clinton or Donald Trump’s vanquishing of 16 rivals for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination (and ultimate victory)…but you cannot question the significance of either.

Quick personal note: my daughters and I met Senator Sanders at the storied Red Arrow Diner in Manchester, NH in September 2012. He was gracious and warm when I thanked him for his service.

Grace VanderWaal wins America’s Got Talent. Credit my wife for showing me clips of her audition, as she wows Howie Mandell and Simon Cowell, and her ultimate victory. Seriously, the poise and grace (pun intended) of a 12-year-old self-taught songwriter and ukulele player from Suffern, NY may be the single brightest moment of 2016.

One question for Simon, though. Why does she have to be the “next Taylor Swift?” Why can’t she simply be the first Grace VanderWaal?

Saturday Night Live finds its voice again. Ever since Chevy Chase started bumbling around the Studio 8H stage as President Ford in 1975, Saturday Night Live (SNL) has reflected the political zeitgeist, often with hilarious results. Even by those standards, 2016 was a banner year, as Kate McKinnon played Hillary Clinton (with a strange meeting in a bar) and Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway, Larry David kept popping up as Bernie Sanders (including a raucous encounter on a ship), and Alec Baldwin played former Virginia Senator Jim Webb before completely getting under Trump’s skin as, well, Trump. There were other notable portrayals, although Cecily Strong could not quite capture the controlled manic exuberance of MSNBC Rachel Maddow.

In my opinion, the writing and acting on SNL are sharper than they have been in years, in large part because the show is relying less on a handful of “stars” (the brilliant McKinnon notwithstanding) and more on ensemble performances.

And I will close with an SNL  “sketch” that is easily the funniest thing I saw all year. David S. Pumpkins is now a thing in our home. For better or for better.

Please tell me in the Comments what other positive things occurred in 2016. Oh, and definitely feel free to like, share and follow this blog.

Until next time… Happy New Year!