Moving, Non-Publication…and Dada?

I rarely break the fourth wall here: personal stories I tell are usually contextualized within some larger theme, like interrogating memory.

Today, however, I speak directly to you – to explain why, after 16 posts in 3½ months, I have not posted since June 25. I will not, however, explain why I did not post at all between November 17, 2020 and March 8, 2021 – other than to say I was burned out from the 2020 elections, finishing my book (see below) and dealing with some serious family health issues.

On March 14, 2021, meanwhile, the owners of the two floors of a Brookline house we had called home since August 2018 – informed us they were selling the unit and we had to vacate by June 30. My wife Nell, who had skillfully located our prior two apartments, put her mind to the task of finding a new apartment. She succeeded brilliantly: our new home, two floors in Brookline much closer to our daughters’ middle school, is a little bit of very spectacular. We both feel liberated by the move for reasons we are still deciphering.

My task, meanwhile, was to start another purge. Nell’s mother moved to Memory Care at her senior living center in March 2020, precipitating the cleaning out of her small apartment. Moreover, Nell had moved her from a packed brownstone in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, DC nearly seven years earlier. A rented storage unit helped us manage this influx of stuff – a combination of high-value antiques and the normal detritus of 70+ years of living.

Still, unneeded stuff was strewn throughout our spacious half of the basement, so that is where I began to make things disappear, after which I proceeded to the apartment itself. Some disappearance was via normal trash pickup, some via these kind folks, and some…suffice to say I know where the nearest industrial-sized trash bins are. In the end, we removed at least 40 large green trash bags filled with stuff from our home. At the same time, large piles of books, clothes and dishes made their way to stores and Red Cross bins. And Nell contacted purchasers of antique silver and furniture, who seized upon much of it, some of which we transported in a rented U-Haul van with poor shock absorbers – our eldest daughter has vowed never to travel this way again – on a particularly hot and sunny June Saturday. Not all of it, but enough to make our actual move a little bit easier.

To wit, we cannot sing the praises of Gentle Giant movers enough. After a few weeks of packing, four strong handsome men arrived at our apartment with TWO trucks early on the morning of July 1. It took them nearly 10 hours to pack some final things, load their trucks, then unload them in our new apartment, but not once did they lose their sense of humor, their good nature or their camaraderie. They politely placed anything where we requested – including up and down numerous flights of stairs. They were professionals in the very best sense of the term, and they did not charge us nearly as much as we had feared.

Our younger daughter – who gets very anxious with substantive change – stayed with a cousin for a few nights, while Nell, older daughter and I set to work constructing our new home. The three ladies (our beloved golden retriever Ruby died from lymphoma at the end of April, a few weeks before her seventh birthday) then departed for the family home on Martha’s Vineyard on July 6. Over the next 10 days, meanwhile, I finished the last 90% of the “construction,” loudly singing to iPod playlists blasted through computer speakers as I unpacked – then deconstructed before tossing them into a special bin in Brookline – box after box after box. I repositioned bookcases, ordered and shelved a few thousand books, washed glasses, rearranged the kitchen multiple times, collected like items into one place…and so forth. I essentially completed the job two days ago, with only a few old bins of clothing left to explore – or not.

There is absolutely no rush at this point. And I will leave most of our artwork – including eight pieces we never unpacked in our last apartment – for Nell and her stud finder to hang. The piece we most missed the last three years is this self-portrait of my cousin, the artist Lois Lane. Yes, Ervin and Celia Lane named their only daughter Lois back in the 1940s; her husband’s last name, Bark, improves matters only slightly.

But having finally constructed our apartment, it is time for me to get back to my regular job – writing.

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The other thing I have done this year is query literary agents about publishing my book Interrogating Memory: Film Noir Spurs a Deep Dive Into My Family History…and My Own. A well-worn copy of WRITER’S MARKET 2019 (“WM2019”) informed me most mass-market publishers no longer accept submissions directly from authors. Instead, prospective authors contract with an agent to do that work for them. Why this changed, I do not know, but Christopher Vyce of the Brattle Agency pithily summed up what this new “rule” has done to literary agencies.

Thank you for your interest in the Brattle Agency. Since the founding of the agency in 2008, the Brattle Agency has prided itself on accepting unsolicited submissions for consideration. The industry is founded on discoveries. There are many great writers out there who have never had an agent or somehow escaped an agent’s radar and that was why we were always interested in hearing from prospective clients. Unfortunately, the industry has changed in that nearly no publisher will accept a manuscript unless it is submitted to them by an agent. This institutional change has meant that nearly every hopeful writer has had to spend an inordinate amount of time trying to secure an agent to start (or in a few cases further) their career. That has led to a tsunami of submissions to the pool of agents who are willing to read and evaluate unsolicited proposals. That tsunami has engulfed the Brattle Agency. On any given day our inbox of submissions numbers in the hundreds. It is untenable. It has to change.

Between February 5 and May 12, I submitted 100 queries, using the list in WM2019 –members of the Association of Author Representatives (i.e., do not charge “reading fees”) who represent non-fiction writers and are open to new submissions. As Mr. Vyce predicted, I spent an inordinate amount of time drafting these queries – there is little-to-no query uniformity across literary agencies.

As of this writing, I have been formally turned down by 22 of them – including Brattle; Mr. Vyce, as did nearly all of the other rejecting agents, wrote an encouraging note emphasizing the extreme subjectivity of the process. One agent, though, was remarkably rude, writing “Hi, Matt, normally when I read a proposal I have a lot of ideas about where to take the project. In your case, I have none.” Ouch!

Nonetheless, these were the “polite” agencies, those that took the time to e-mail even a form-letter rejection. I have passed the “if you don’t hear from us by…” date for an additional 68 agencies. A further four allow you to follow-up or contact a new agent after a certain date; I will do so shortly. That leaves only six other agencies who are still “in the running,” one of which has apparently not yet made a decision about my query after 151 days. Like every reputable literary agency, they are trying to dig themselves out of an avalanche of queries – and so it is still possible those deadlines are extremely loose, and I will finally hear something positive from one or more agents soon.

I am not holding my breath, however. In fact, I am already brainstorming how to get this book published – I believe that strongly in it – without a traditional literary agent. Assuming that is possible; I may eventually have to accept the fact it is not.

Back in early April, when I could first sense finding a literary agent was going to be challenging, I began to write a post in which I ruminated on the nature of failure. In this still-unfinished post, I primarily critiqued the absurd, particularly American notion that if you somehow keep trying just a little harder, you can achieve anything.

Horse manure.

There are often profound structural barriers that prevent even the most talented and “deserving” persons from achieving their goals. Reading dozens of loose descriptions of what agents – the vast majority of whom are female, interestingly – seek to represent, few were a good fit for me: an Ivy-League-educated cisgender white heterosexual male in his 50s raised in the suburbs of a northeastern American city.

Bor-ing! I can hear them cry.

Now, given the deliberate vagueness of the 22 formal rejections, I do not know with any certainty why any given agent declined to represent me. The most direct answer is a nicer version of “I have no idea where to take this book”: s/he simply could not figure out a way to market a 400-page book about Jewish immigrants to West Philadelphia, the backstory of my adoption and genetic families, film noir and my suburban childhood – complete with dozens of illustrations, three appendices and 30 pages of endnotes – to a mass-market publisher. I had not realized, for example, going into this process that having a large, preexisting platform from which to promote your book is apparently a prerequisite for publication. It sort of strikes me that is the job of publishing house Marketing Departments – and is yet one more example of the rich getting richer.

As an aside, the formal proposal question with which I struggled the most related to “similar works published in the last few years.” Huh? When I began to write Interrogating Memory in July 2017, I was simply telling a related set of cool stories, stories illustrating what an epistemically-sound critical thinking approach to one’s own life can yield. Because, wow, did I learn some stuff – both new stories and debunked old stories. But I did not set out to write another “XXX” book, I set out to write the first “Matthew Berger” book. Now, I was certainly heavily influenced by a wide range of books – some relatively recent, some dating back to the 1970s. I discussed those books, of course, none of which were massive sellers – but the clear subtext of the question was not lost on me: we only want books guaranteed to sell a certain number of copies.

The point is, I did not start with a marketing strategy, I started with an idea: turn this essay about why I love film noir into a full-length book. I then wrote the book that resulted from that process. It is, if I may say so, an excellent book. But it was not designed with readers in mind, not sales. And, to be fair, I do see a market for this book, as I summarized in many of my query letters:

Interrogating Memory is both objective history and deeply personal, informed by a meticulous curiosity and rigorous academic training. It is a love letter to investigation, film noir, Philadelphia, Judaism, true crime, the immigrant American experience and, of course, my families. While fans of these specific topics–and presumably of my families–will enjoy it, so will a wider audience, drawn to its core conceit: every life is fascinating when framed properly and investigated thoroughly. 

I do not want to sound bitter; I am not. Rather I feel frustrated and let down by a broken system. I recognize that traditional publishing – hardbound books sold in brick-and-mortar bookstores or online – is being challenged on many sides. I also recognize we live in a time when diversity is being actively sought; this is an excellent thing. I represent the very opposite of that diversity – simply put, my timing stinks. I could also argue – as I may do in a later post – that fiction and what I might term “coffee table non-fiction” (celebrity memoirs, cookbooks, pop psychology, self-help, etc.) is vastly more popular with mass market publishers than more serious non-fiction. Not that Interrogating Memory is especially academic or ponderous. Quite the opposite: it is eminently readable, despite its emphasis on careful research and critical thinking. If anything, it may not be rigorous enough for the university presses who typically publish this type of non-fiction. To be fair, I do not know that my book is not right for these presses, as I do not know if the literary agents I have thus far queried typically interact with those presses.

Still, for now, I appear to be caught betwixt and between – too non-diverse for literary agents, too academic for mass-market publishers, not academic enough for the university presses and unwilling to self-publish. Having devoted 3½ years of my life to this book, I want the full backing of a reputable publisher, even if that publisher is relatively small.

Well, and it is now a matter of pride – this has become personal.

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So…what does ANY of this have to with the early-20th-century artistic movement known as Dadaism? Perhaps nothing at all, which would please the original Dadaists.

Dadaism – a kind of anti-art – emerged in February 1916 when five artists from France, Germany and Romania, all fleeing the horrors of World War I, converged in Zurich, in neutral Switzerland. Disgusted both by the unprecedented carnage of the war and by the establishment “rules” that led to it, they designed an art that was in opposition to war, to traditional rules – in many ways to art itself. In a world where suddenly nothing made sense, where traditional ways of thinking had led to millions of pointless deaths, the idea of “making sense” seemed pointless. These five artists opened the Cabaret Voltaire, where – among other things – they dressed in paper outfits, read absurdist poetry and engaged in Dadaist soirees. “Dada” is itself a nonsense word whose origins are obscure.

It is one of the great personal ironies that I, a highly-trained researcher who just wrote a paean to critical thinking and who revels in a kind of ritualized order and structure, have always been particularly drawn to art influenced by Dadaism and its immediate successor, surrealism – art that defies rational, conscious structure and meaning. To begin with, my cousin Lois’s work is clearly Dadaist-influenced. From a young age, meanwhile, I was drawn to Salvador Dali (“borrowing” a book about him from my maternal grandmother) then to Man Ray. I have long loved the comedy of the Marx Brothers and Monty Python – heavily reliant on non-sequiturs, bizarre juxtapositions and joyous anarchy – and, more recently, anything directed by David Lynch. Animator Terry Gilliam, the lone American-born member of the Python troupe, is clearly influenced by the photomontage style pioneered by the Dadaists. As for Lynch, easily my favorite director not named Alfred Hitchcock, his work explores the buried, the hidden – the unconscious, as the surrealists would call it – within the everyday. And his penchant for letting ideas lead where they will is extremely Dadaist, as we shall see. Finally, one of the best books we ever bought for our children reflected the surrealist art of Rene Magritte.

I myself have mastered a kind of Dadaist sense of humor.  I love to intentionally mishear things, replacing the banal with the absurd – even going so far as to say, “Nah, my version is funnier.” I sometimes vocalize a series of ululations of varying volume, pitch and tone and call it “opera;” one such opera apparently glorifies the Treaty of Ghent. And, in December 2019, I constructed what I called “a surrealist epic” poem: a sampling of lyrics from every track on that year’s Thanksgiving clean-up playlist. In retrospect, given that it repurposed existing art into a new piece of art, it is actually Dadaist, not surrealist.

The point is that I am drawn to art that challenges my ordered, button-down nature, ignoring and even disdaining artistic “rules.” I did not even mention the avant-garde music of Robert Fripp and Brian Eno and cinema of Koyaanisqatsi. I love all of it.

One could also point out that I am…dissatisfied…with the “rules” and processes surrounding contemporary publishing. While I am not yet prepared to tear down the process and publish my book in some yet-to-be-determined non-traditional way, I am determined to get Interrogating Memory into the hands of anyone willing to pay a reasonable cost.

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All of which brings me to my late-night viewing habits.

Writing Interrogating Memory, I got into the habit of starting to work around 10 or 11 pm, once the rest of the family had gone to sleep. After working a few hours, I would crash on the sofa in front of YouTube – on our big screen HD television – to watch informative videos. Even my relaxation is somewhat educational.

Recently, I have been delving deeper into film history beyond film noir, which is how I discovered excellent channels like Cinema Cartography, 100 Years of Cinema…and Crash Course Film History. Meanwhile, when I was unpacking my books, I rediscovered Mel Gordon’s terrific history of the Grand Guignol theatre in Paris. This led me to videos about the Grand Guignol – this one is particularly good – and to Crash Course Theater; Episode 35 is about the Grand Guignol.

It was only a matter of time until I watched the episode (#37) about Dadaism, Surrealism and Structuralism – and here we are. One thing I learned is that in 1920, Tristan Tzara wrote his rules for constructing Dadaist poetry.

TO MAKE A DADAIST POEM
Take a newspaper.
Take some scissors.
Choose from this paper an article of the length you want to make your poem.
Cut out the article.
Next carefully cut out each of the words that makes up this article and put them all in a bag.
Shake gently.
Next take out each cutting one after the other.
Copy conscientiously in the order in which they left the bag.
The poem will resemble you.
And there you are—an infinitely original author of charming sensibility, even though unappreciated by the vulgar herd.

For the record, I do not thing anyone who reads my posts is in any way part of “the vulgar herd.”

Having finally constructed our apartment, I decided to entertain myself by applying Tzara’s rules to song lyrics, replacing the hat with a random number generator – this is still a data-driven website. Likely because it has been one of my favorite songs for more than 40 years, I chose “Him” by Rupert Holmes (excerpt from Chapter 10: Night Driving):

“Between my window and the walkway was a small outdoor patio bounded by a rough semi-circle of five walls, alternating brick wood brick wood brick, each about six feet high. Female-first-cousin and I clambered over these walls one night before we moved in. In my memory, Rupert Holmes’ “Him”—still a favorite—plays in the background; one year later, on March 28, 1981, male-first-cousin and I sat near the stage during his performance at the Host Farm Cabaret—my second-ever concert.”[1]

You may find the actual lyrics here. And let me make clear I mean no disrespect to Mr. Holmes, one of my artistic heroes.

To construct the poem, I copied the lyrics into Word then made sure there was only one word per line. Next, I copied the 288 words into Excel. Using the random number generator on my iPhone calculator – dividing each number by 3.47222 to scale values from 0.001 to 0.288, I selected each word below. If I repeated a number, I chose the nearest word – going down one for the first 144 words and up one for the last 144 words when given the choice.

This is what I created – my first Dadaist poem, although the punctuation and line breaks may be verboten:

Leaves about or stays without

Have she?

Ooh!

Let know, for I don’t…it’s…is…it…

Not forgets…don’t do…let about who, for to time

Don’t!

By can, it’s gonna

Girl, how…what’s to him, say him, do, make.

I, with.

Not free, it free, me have her time.

Him gonna, it’s she one, him…him…him wants to.

The…what’s, or do, of to, with her, we get, or do

Goodbye is left – both get without

Hide ways – the?

Me, him, him wants, she once – sometimes him, him do

Of me, a window stays or gonna do the…free him!

It’s gonna…and…and me – it, three?

It can’t, without there’s…without over

Pack cigarettes, many

His have, she without too, me me

To mine, it get she those blind

Who thought – like – she’s without us, him

For him, gonna me, him to, to he, him…or gonna him!

Gets – or gonna – NO!

She’s me, them one, it’s…it’s…him?

Gets do my without back – what’s do?

She’s were…ooh…OOH!

One, the…I…him…free

It’s about do me – I is brand

You, but I’ll understand…to know

Ooh…him…HIM!

To…what’s gets him for

Ooh…I’m me

Want forgets see have…if one

Ooh…she – and smokes him – she want, get, have

Would to…to own her?

Ooh…friend do!

I, I, me…behind him

Ooh…that why know looks?

Just he…oh!

Ooh…me, what’s me without, exactly?

What she’ll know don’t me for…or…or say

For to he, she gonna him or/and do to me…me!

Gets? No to one…no girl, see it’s she

Me, a…me, ah…do about him?

She’s me without – have just, he’s…no

To make girl, it’s me.

Until next time, please by safe and healthy…and get vaccinated if you have not already done so!


[1] Lancaster New Era (Lancaster, PA), March 13, 1981, pg. 17

Measuring the Unmeasurable: Ranking One’s Favorite Music, Part 1

I recently updated a data-based discussion of my cinematic “guilty pleasures,” adding a comparison of “most-acclaimed” and “my favorite” films from a given year or years. In so doing, though, I side-stepped the question of determining with something approaching academic rigor just what my favorite films are, relying solely on my gut to select a favorite film or films from each period.

Readers of this website know that I am fascinated by the art and science of measurement, be it the “noirness” of film festivals, Charlie Chan films, the Marvel Cinematic Universe or baseball player performance. Each of these prior analyses, however, is purely objective: all of the data I used are publicly-available, so the only “subjective” decisions I needed to make were selecting which data to compile and what statistical methods to use. And even when I was analyzing data for which I am the lone source – like this gorgeous distribution of iTunes tracks[1] by year and genre – the only decisions I made related to visualization, not personal preference.

Now, at last, I tackle the deceptively simple question of what music, movies, etc. I like most. More to the point, I address how I can most effectively and efficiently derive a “score” for each track or film, so that I can not only rank order them, but aggregate them into, say, albums, artists and genres, overall or by time period.

In the first installment of this seriees, we journey from my first-ever “mixtape” to my initial attempt to assign scores to my favorite music.

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While researching my book Interrogating Memory: Film Noir Spurs a Deep Dive Into My Family History…and My Own, I reread a hand-written “Journal” – really just a paper-clipped set of mid-sized lined pieces of paper ripped from a notebook – I began on May 29, 1981, as I was about to finish 9th grade at Harriton High School.

Buried within the June 5, 1981 entry is this:

Went to Ludington [Library in Bryn Mawr, PA]. … Then from there to Sam Goody’s for The Moody Blues Long Distance Voyager and Phil Collins Face Value. Good stuff. … Then it was Mad’s for Kraftwerk Autobahn.

At the time the two record stores sat a short walk from each other on E. Lancaster Avenue in the Philadelphia suburb of Ardmore. Four decades later, I still own these very albums.

A few months earlier, I had convinced my father – not exactly flush with cash much of the time – to buy three albums for me: The CarsThe Cars and Panorama, and, if memory serves, Supertramp’s Breakfast in America. I still have Panorama on vinyl, though I long since replaced the other two with CDs.

In the 12 months before that, meanwhile, I acquired Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk, Peter Gabriel (III) and Steve Winwood’s Arc of a Diver. I still have Tusk and Arc on vinyl, with PGIII replaced by a CD. Finally, in late July or early August 1981, I acquired Foreigner 4…which I foolishly sold a few years later to buy a new issue of Billboard.

I played these 10 albums – and others I owned – on a turntable, complete with mid-sized brown wooden-cabinet speakers, my mother had bought just over four years earlier. Two moves later, it had migrated to my bedroom, where it sat on a low white wooden shelf with my record collection.

Exactly when I received my first Sony Walkman – and when I got the idea to record a set of tracks I like onto a Maxell cassette – I could not tell you. Nor could I tell you exactly what day in August 1981 – it was likely a Saturday, as I was a day camp junior counselor on weekdays – I placed one of the brown speakers on the floor next to my portable cassette recorder, cued up “Spanish Dancer” on Arc of a Diver, and hit Record. I sat in absolute silence as that track – followed by 13 others – recorded monaurally with zero Dolby noise reduction.

At least, I think it was these 14 tracks, in this order:

Side 1

Spanish Dancer                     Steve Winwood

Night Train                           Steve Winwood

Urgent                                    Foreigner

Juke Box Hero                       Foreigner

Moving in Stereo                  The Cars

All Mixed Up                        The Cars

Side 2

Touch and Go                       The Cars

Running to You                    The Cars

In the Air Tonight                Phil Collins

The Voice                              The Moody Blues

Gemini Dream                      The Moody Blues

Sisters of the Moon              Fleetwood Mac

Games Without Frontiers   Peter Gabriel

I Don’t Remember               Peter Gabriel

I have long since lost the cassette and lined insert card on which I wrote track titles and artists. A thorough search of the cardboard box on the floor to my left – containing dozens of mix cassettes and CDs – did not reveal it. It is purely memory that conjures up this list, though it is a very reasonable list.

My memory also says it was a 60-minute cassette, except this version of Side 1 is 32 minutes long, while Side 2 is 36 minutes long. So, unless I cut off two minutes of a track on Side 1 and have too many tracks on Side 2, this was more likely a 90-minute cassette, and I either ran out of tracks to record (VERY unlikely), or I am forgetting tracks.

Either way, as the cardboard box implies, what I creatively called My Stuff was only my first adventure in mix-making. Four months later I filled a 90-minute cassette with 22 tracks recorded from the radio; I called this cassette Stuff Vol. I. Over the next two years, I completed Stuff Vol. II through XI. With the exception of Side 1 of Stuff Vol. IV, a collection of late 60s/early 70s rock I recorded in June 1982,[2] these were “acquisition” mixes – mostly from the radio but sometimes from borrowed records. Indeed, only six of the 188 (or more, see below) unique tracks I recorded onto those mixes were recorded twice: “I Don’t Remember,” “Tainted Love” by Soft Cell, and the four borrowed-record tracks: two by A Flock of Seagulls, “Kids in America” by Kim Wilde and “Escalator of Life” by Robert Hazard and the Heroes.

It is pretty clear where my musical tastes lay then – and now.

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I first wrote here about the 300+ mix cassettes, CDs and videocassettes I recorded between August 1981 and August 2016. These mixes contain at least 3,383 unique tracks.

  • Besides My Stuff, I no longer have Stuff Vol. V (from which I recall seven tracks) and one of the two mixes between Stuff Vol. VIII and Stuff Vol. XI. The other one is in a different plastic case with a sticker reading “I92–Stranglers/Fixx/Devo.” As I have no memory of the “missing” cassette – and I played the heck out of these mixes – it is very likely I simply misnumbered them.
  • When I first began to enter mix contents into a spreadsheet in December 1992, I equated studio and live versions of the same track (except when I didn’t), while including tracks from which I only recorded snippets, or which got cut off at the end.

I had actually been rank-ordering my favorite music for years – summoning from my gut then playing personal “top 25 songs” lists since 1980, if not earlier. In January 1990, meanwhile, I commemorated the end of the 1980s by determining – purely through thought and memory – my 40 favorite tracks of that decade; I mistakenly included “Prime Time” by The Tubes, even though Remote Control, its parent album, was released in 1979. “Promised You a Miracle” by Simple Minds was #1, beating out “All Roads Lead to Rome” by The Stranglers. In March, I purchased my first CD player, allowing me to record from CD to cassette, followed in April by my first PC. The former purchase triggered a wave of CD buying, mostly through buy 1, get 11 for one penny deals; I stocked up on “Best of” CDs. I also began prowling through used record, tape and CD stores. With a PC, meanwhile, I now had a spreadsheet program, though not Microsoft Excel.

By December 1992, I had created 88mixes – excluding the two Top 40 of the 1980s cassettes (10 tracks over four sides), a mix I created for my then-girlfriend in 1990 and a mix I created in the summer of 1992 for a woman in whom I was romantically interested. In the days before data compression and MP3s, constructing a mix required you to play every included track in its entirety. Plus, cassettes had only so much room and unless you bought them in bulk, blank ones were precious. Thus, you really had to like a track if you chose to record it onto a mix.

The brainstorm that I had in December 1992, then, was this: the universe of tracks included on my mixes roughly corresponded to my favorite tracks. And by tallying up what tracks appeared most often on a mix, I could both rank my favorite tracks and assign each one a numeric score. Then, by aggregating those scores, I could rank my favorite albums, artists and genres, both overall and by year.

Ranking hypothesis #1: I like every track I recorded onto a mix more than any track I have never recorded onto a mix.

Ranking hypothesis #2: The more mixes on which I have recorded a track, the more I like it.

This proved not to be as straightforward as I had hoped.

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In March 1984, I drove some classmates and myself to Washington DC for a Model UN gathering. Anticipating the long drive, I made my first proper mix tapes since My Stuff: Georgetown Survival Mix Vol. I and II. We did not actually stay in Georgetown – where a teenaged Nell (now my wife) then lived – but in a Marriott on Connecticut Avenue NW in Woodley Park. These 43 tracks summarized favored recent album purchases: ABC’s The Lexicon of Love and Spandau Ballet’s True, plus an assortment of records from Roxy Music, Alan Parsons Project, Talking Heads, Genesis, Peter Gabriel, A Flock of Seagulls, U2, Duran Duran, Squeeze, Icehouse, Re-Flex and Real Life. I still did not have a proper cassette recorder – nor could I play cassettes in the “Berger Bus,” my black 1979 Ford Fairmont. So, my tape recorder came along for the ride.

Similar two-cassette “constructed” mixes followed in July 1984, November 1984 and January to March 1985 – with another “acquisition mix” in June 1984. That summer, as I settled into my new room in my mother’s suburban Philadelphia apartment – she had rented my bedroom to a young woman – I was gifted an all-in-one turntable/cassette player/radio/cassette recorder. I spent much of that summer twirling radio dials, seeking tracks to record, creating Summer 1985, Vols. I to VIII.

At the start of my sophomore year at Yale, after 28 mixes and 487+ unique tracks, I constructed a mix – mostly from my record collection, but with some borrowed albums as well – called Stuff and Such Vol. I. I have no idea why I chose this playful title, but in so doing I created the mix-naming convention I would use for the next 16 years.

Well, it was the naming convention I used exclusively, excepting Pseudo Dance Music Vols. I and II in October 1989, beginning with my move to the Boston suburbs at the end of August 1989. In the previous four years, I intertwined first 12 Stuff and Such volumes with Stuff of 1985, Summer 86 Vols. I-III, Summer 1987 Vols. I-III, Stuff of 1987-88, Video Stuff Vols. I-IV, Summer 1988 Vol. I and Washington Vol. I-III. Broadly speaking, I constructed Stuff and Such mixes from my record collection – filling out sides with a few radio/borrowed tracks – and the other mixes from the radio and elsewhere – filling out sides with tracks from my record collection.

Basically, mixes served two purposes at this time:

  1. Acquisition: Though borrowing and recording from the radio and cable music channels new tracks became part of my collection.
  2. Portability: I could play tracks from newly-acquired albums on my Sony Walkman anywhere I wanted.

By the end of August 1989, I had created 52 cassette and four video mixes – averaging seven per year – comprising 919+ unique tracks spread over 1,118+ “slots.” A “slot” is anything recorded onto a mix, so if I record 25 tracks onto a cassette, that is 25 “slots.” During this eight-year period, 157 tracks (17.1%) were recorded twice, while 21 (2.3%) were recorded three times. A track appears multiple times either because I liked it so much, I wanted it to include it on subsequent mixes, or because I first recorded one version (perhaps a 12” remix) from the radio then found a different version – or the video on either MTV or VH1.

Updated Ranking Hypothesis #2: The number of mixes onto which I record a track is positively associated with how much I like that track.

Meanwhile, as I prepared to move to Somerville to enroll in the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences doctoral program in government, I knew I had a long solo drive to Boston ahead of me. To accompany me on this drive, and presuming I could play these cassettes on the sound system of the U-Haul I drove, I lovingly prepared the 136-track Boston Drive Vols. I-VI. Only nine tracks were being recorded for the first time, including the first two tracks on Side 1 of Boston Drive Vol. I: Overture and Heaven on Their Minds, which open the soundtrack to the 1973 film version of Jesus Christ Superstar; I played that soundtrack incessantly over the next few years. This is the first instance of what I later called the “anchor” track (in this case, tracks) – the very first track recorded on a mix or set of mixes, the one(s) I am the most excited to hear. This would later apply to a) the first track recorded on any mix within a set and b) the final track recorded on that set.

Ranking Hypothesis #3: The tracks I like the most on a mix or set of mixes are the first tracks I record on a cassette/CD – especially the anchor track – and the final track I record.

Ranking Hypothesis #3a: RH3 is not true before August 1989.

Ranking Hypothesis #3b: RH3 is sometimes true between September 1989 and February 1992.

Ranking Hypothesis #3c: RH3 is always true after February 1992.

In essence, the Boston Drive mixes were a compendium of those tracks I always fast-forwarded or rewound to hear over the previous eight years. And for the first time, I began to think about how I ordered tracks. Up until now I had either been at the whim of disc/video jockeys or had recorded artist “blocks” – a group of ABC tracks followed by a group of Spandau Ballet tracks followed by…you get the idea. There was no particular ordering of tracks within each artist – or really at all.

This began to change with Boston Drive, even my thought process was no more complicated than “put ‘rocking’ tracks on Side 1 and ‘mellow’ tracks on Side 2,” with “rocking” and “mellow” loosely defined. This was how I constructed Vols. I-III. Side 1 of Boston Drive Vol. IV contains 10 Genesis tracks, while Side 2 opens with “The Chamber of 32 Doors” followed by seven instrumental tracks. Boston Drive Vols. V and VI are essentially the leftovers, with the line between “rocking” and “mellow” nearly obliterated. The final track – still one of my 10 or 15 favorites – is “Darkness,” the last track on The Police’s Ghost In The Machine.

The Boston Drive mixes were such a revelation I returned to them repeatedly over the next few years. They also allowed me essentially to ignore the previous 52 cassette mixes, though I still watched the four video cassettes sometimes; what I do not remember is whether I had physically left them behind in my mother’s suburban Philadelphia apartment.

Meanwhile, shortly after moving to Somerville, I borrowed an apartment-mate’s CD of Camper Van Beethoven’s Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart. I had fallen in love with “One of These Days” after hearing it played on WFNX in Washington, though I never got the chance to record it. That track – still one of my 100 favorites – not only opened Stuff and Such Vol. XIII, it signaled the end of the first wave of mix making. I have not recorded a single track from the radio since then, for example, though I did once fill an entire videocassette from VH1 Classic, retroactively designating a set of videos as Video Stuff 2002-03. Also, I now focused solely on constructing cassette mixes based on a mix of newly-acquired tracks – whether from CDs, vinyl albums or cassettes, or culled from other collections – and “repeat” tracks, the ones I wanted to hear again after recording them on an earlier mix. I still grouped tracks by artist – devoting two cassettes to Genesis and one to Roxy Music – and gave little thought to how one track flowed into the next, but the first faint glimmers of the strict mix-construction rules I later followed are there.

This demarcation of mixes into “before Boston Drive” and “Boston Drive and later,” however, meant that when I began to enter track name, artist and mix name into my PC spreadsheet I began with the Boston Drive mixes. I was daunted enough by the thought of entering data from 32 mixes – 36 counting the tangential 80s and romantic mixes; entering data from the previous 56 mixes went above and beyond.

Moreover, I was not satisfied with a simple tally of how many of the 749 slots each of the 512 tracks filled; two-thirds (341) occupied only one slot, while 39 occupied three slots, six occupied four slots and five – “Zamba” by Bryan Ferry, “Save Me (plus the unlisted reprise after “Fat Chance Hotel” that closes out Happy?) by Public Image Ltd, “Same Old Scene” by Roxy Music, “Driver’s Seat” by Sniff ‘n’ the Tears and “Cuad El Habib” by Yello – occupied five slots.

No, I began to “weight” appearances on some mixes more than others. Nearly 30 years and many iterations later, I can only guess at those first weights – but an appearance on the Boston Drive mixes equated to something like three slots, while appearing on the four “non-series” mixes something like two slots, as did appearance on particularly beloved mixes like Stuff and Such Vol. XXX, created in June 1992. It is possible appearance on “one-artist-only” mixes counted as <1 slots, but I doubt it – I had not yet reached that level of, umm, methodological sophistication.

Ranking Hypothesis #4: I like tracks included on designated mixes more than those only included on non-designated mixes.

Ranking Hypothesis #4a: How much more I like tracks included on designated mixes varies by designated mix.

At the time, ignoring 56.1% of the 1,166+ tracks I had recorded over the previous 11+ years made logistical sense. It also allowed me to ignore the distinction between “now/recently” and “of all time.” I continued to exclude them – with a partial exception I revisit in the next installment – for more than a decade.

It was thus a limited collection of 512 tracks from which I tabulated – using the “ranking hypotheses” listed above – the first installment of “The Berger 100;”[3] “The Berger 10” received its own page:

10. “Promised You a Miracle”

9. “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” Tubeway Army[4]

8. “The Evening’s Young” Yello

7. “New Toy” Lene Lovich[5]

6. “Stay Hungry” Talking Heads

5. “Cuad El Habib”

4. “Entangled” Genesis

3. “Right Down the Line” Gerry Rafferty

2. “Driver’s Seat”

1. “Save Me/Reprise”

“Zamba” was #12 and “Same Old Scene” was #19.

Based on what I remember of that time, the “ranking hypotheses” – the earliest incarnation of a score-computing algorithm – worked very well, at least in terms of what I most listened to in the early 1990s. From the song rankings, I generated “The Berger Album 50/10” and the “The Berger Artist 100/10.” At least, I think I did – I dated the track listings but not those for album and artist. Not that it mattered, as Ultravox’s Quartet and Genesis, respectively, topped those lists throughout the 1990s.

We return to that decade in the next installment, in which mix-making protocols emerge, mixes proliferate and technology flummoxes me…before it makes me rejoice.

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


[1] I prefer “track” to “song” because it encompasses the full range of “music-related things that can be recorded onto a mix” tape, CD or video.

[2] For the previous two years, an older Harritonite rode the same bus as me, and she regularly played a mix of 60s folk rock tunes. The side I recorded – Beatles, Rolling Stones, Chicago, Seals and Crofts, Moody Blues, David Bowie, John Lennon – was inspired by her mix.

[3] Brian Eno’s “Julie With” was #100.

[4] Incorrectly written as Are Friends Electric? Gary Numan

[5] Yes, that is Thomas Dolby in the video.

Dispatches from Brookline: Home Schooling and Social Distancing XIII

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

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I was wrong.

The ants came back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_3124

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

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

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

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

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

Oh…right.

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

April 20

I deliberated briefly, considering three possibilities:

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

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

Here is what I think happened.

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

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

No holiday on the white board

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

Ceasar family c 1903

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

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

Furthermore,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As Rachel Maddow would say, watch this space.

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

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

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

April 21

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

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

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

Until next time…please stay safe and healthy…

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

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

Dispatches from Brookline: Home Schooling and Social Distancing XII

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rinse. Repeat.

**********

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

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

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

Film noir personal journey

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

Illuminati

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

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

I baked u a pie

This was only the beginning, though.

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

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

I baked you a pie!

My my my!

You did?!? What flavor is it?

Murpleberry!

Are there any other ingredients?

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

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

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

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

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

**********

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

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

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

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

Really, kid, really?!?

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

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

**********

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

InkedApril 16_LI

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

**********

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

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

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

Loudly.

Oops…sorry

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

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

Rock and roll branches

Rock matures

Folk Rock

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

Here are highlights of their reactions:

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

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

Drawing 1 April 17

Drawing 2 April 17

Drawing 3 April 17

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

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

And that was that.

Until next time…please stay safe and healthy…

Dispatches from Brookline: Home Schooling and Social Distancing XI

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

**********

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, except for one karmic postscript.

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

It was a small brown bunny.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

**********

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

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

This is what greeted me in the classroom:

April 13

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

Its Monday Gerald and Piggy

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

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

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

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

British Invasion

British Invasion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until next time…please stay safe and healthy…

Dispatches from Brookline: Home Schooling and Social Distancing X

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

**********

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not so sleepy 50s

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

The Music Never Died

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

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

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

Sorry, kid, it is not.

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

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

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

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

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

And with that, class was dismissed.

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

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

Pink moon

Misty-eyed view of Boston

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

April 9

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

Cinematography

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

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

I could not agree more, kid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

April 10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until next time…please stay safe and healthy…