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.

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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.

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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.

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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 IX

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

**********

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

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

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

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

Blue and red all over

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

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

My bad.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

**********

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

April 6

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

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

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

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

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

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

Damn, she is good.

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

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

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

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

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

**********

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

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

April 7

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

Stranger Dobby

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

ME April 7

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

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

Philadelphia sort of

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

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

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

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

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

Until next time…please stay safe and healthy…

Dispatches from Brookline: Home Schooling and Social Distancing VIII

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

**********

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks, kid. Thanks a lot.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I eventually made a decision, as you will see.

**********

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

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

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

April 2

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

So, I did.

Oh.

Dr Dobby

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

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

Woolrich April 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks, Nell. Thanks a lot.

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

Which it proved to be.

**********

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

April 3

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

Supportive Dr Dobby

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

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

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

April 3

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

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

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

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

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

**********

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

Oh dear. 

Oh oh OH DEAR.

Mine is…

Kiss You All Over” by Exile

So inappropriate in so many ways.

Wow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until next time…please stay safe and healthy…

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

Dispatches from Brookline: Home Schooling and Social Distancing VII

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

**********

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

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

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

For all that, however, we are extremely lucky:

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

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

**********

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

**********

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

March 30

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Repeal Amendment II

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

Tattoo you

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

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

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

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

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

Living my life with reckless abandon I am.

**********

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

March 31

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

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

Pale of Settlement

The Pale of Settlement

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

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

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

Whitechapel sketch

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

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

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

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

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

Until next time…please stay safe and healthy…

Dispatches from Brookline: Home Schooling and Social Distancing VI

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

**********

When I came downstairs to eat what I continue to call breakfast—despite it being closer to 2:30 pm than, say, 8:30 am—this is what was in the “classroom.”

March 26

Nell appears to have discontinued the “Word of the day” for now. She also left the title of my afternoon classes to our younger daughter’s discretion. However, the press of the latter’s still-active social life kept her from formulating a suitable name, so I stepped in to fill the void.

And, in fact, when the girls and I convened, closer to 3 pm than 2:30 pm, we began by reading aloud from the Constitution of the United States:

  • Article I, Section 7, Paragraph 1
  • Article I, Section 8

US Constitution–Congress Roles

The rest of the lesson may be found here: March 26

The traditional processes by which the United States House of Representatives (“House”) passes legislation was met with a metaphorical yawn, but the workings of the United States Senate (“Senate”) generated a bit more enthusiasm. Our younger daughter, in particular, was quite interested in the twists and turns of getting the Affordable Care and Patient Accountability Act—better known as Obamacare—passed, and she was riveted by the pivotal role Arizona Senator John McCain played in saving it. I did my best to act out McCain’s dramatic “thumbs down” vote.

Nell and I are continuing to learn how best to structure what, when and how we teach our daughters—when they are not working and learning on their own. Seeing how fragile our younger daughter—who has attention deficit disorder and a not-yet-formally-diagnosed learning disability—is by 5 pm, I mixed things up a bit.

I also wanted to avoid snapping at them for the third time this week.

Rather than discuss American politics for an hour, have an hour-long break, then reconvene for another hour-long session on applied math, I divided my discussion of the House and Senate into two parts: roles and elections. The break was only 20 minutes long, and we were finished for the day by 5 pm.

As you see, I spent some time discussing gerrymandering. Our older daughter was appalled at my drawing of a salamander—calling it a “giant worm”—and my rendition of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. She took it upon herself to fix the latter, adding her own personal touches.

Gerrymandered

I am pleased to report this was one of our best classes thus far—and that includes both halves.

**********

Even with the altered routine, however, our daughters began sniping at each other as they ate their dinners and watched some television. The proximate cause was a tussle over who would hold the remote control; our older daughter usually does, but tonight her sister really wanted it. As a result, our older daughter called her sister a “brat,” something she has been admonished many times in the past for doing. In return, our younger daughter used the parental trick of calling an obstreperous child her first, middle and last name—but she used a shrill and piercing tone of voice.

They were sitting just outside of my home office—a converted sun room which Nell wistfully calls “the nicest room in the apartment”—when I heard the outraged cry of “Blanky Blank Berger!” Not in the best frame of mind, I came out of my office to express my displeasure at the younger daughter’s tone and to make clear she is not the parent, Nell and I are.

And, wow, did I lay it on thick. I reminded them in my firmest and harshest Daddy voice how we were in this for the long haul, and we needed to do this all together, and I do not even remember what all else. Younger daughter was now crying—but mostly because of the injustice that I had not tumbled to the fact her sister had called her a brat. Once that penetrated my skull, though, I reprimanded our older daughter. Walking in from the kitchen, Nell reinforced my disapproval. When I suggested the older daughter had earned a consequence, her mother suggested loss of the ChromeBook for the rest of the evening. However, once the defendant correctly pointed out the usual consequence for calling her sister a brat is to cough up five dollars to that sister, Nell realized she could not arbitrarily change the rules like that; a few minutes later, our younger daughter had a five-dollar bill sitting on the table in front of her. And the entire episode, which had lasted barely ten minutes, was quickly forgotten.

This small slice of family drama reveals that, after two weeks, sheltering in place is beginning to take its toll. Thus, when the Amazon Fresh order she had placed very early Tuesday morning arrived Thursday evening, Nell thoroughly scrubbed the black-marble-topped “island” in our kitchen before placing any grocery bags on it. She washed all the berries in a colander then put them into a large Tupperware container. She also wiped down every package of food prior to our putting them into their respective storage places. Later that night, meanwhile, as I set up the kitchen for its nightly cleaning so I could watch with Nell the second episode of season one of Broadchurch—which Nell has been asking me to watch for years, if only because of how many actors and actresses who have appeared in Doctor Who are in it—my frustration level boiled over into a series of angry “Oh, for f—k sake!” expulsions. For the record, I am loving the series—its leisurely-unfolding murder investigation and emphasis upon revealing the darker secrets of a supposedly idyllic small town compare favorably to the first season of Twin Peaks.

It does helps tremendously that the weather has been relatively warm and sunny the last few days, and we have three porches opening off our two stories; climbing multiple flights of internal stairs on a regular basis is a good aerobic workout—really, it is. Throwing a stick in our smallish back yard for our soon-to-be-six-year-old golden retriever over and over and over again works as well.

We also have a breathtakingly spectacular view of downtown Boston. Three weeks ago, if we looked through our kitchen window, we would routinely see three or more moving dots of white light as planes took off from Boston Logan International Airport. Now, it is unusual to see even a single plane in the air. That said, I cannot decide if there are fewer lights visible at night in downtown Boston’s office buildings or not.

I think there are fewer lights at night these days.

**********

When I came downstairs on Friday afternoon, there was no schedule on the flip chart—it was a quiet morning in Nell’s classroom—but our younger daughter had livened up that room in our unique way.

White board March 27

Earlier that day, Nell had ventured to our preferred CVS to pick up some prescriptions. This was the first time she had driven her car in 15 days, though I had moved it onto the street a few times so I could use my car—we have tandem parking—and the outing significantly improved her mood. As often as she and the girls go for runs in our neighborhood, sometimes you need actually to go somewhere.

Meanwhile, I was wicked excited to start class at 3 pm because I had prepared what I hoped would be a genuinely fun exercise—one that did not involve coin flipping, die rolling or card shuffling: a 30-question, multiple-choice quiz game.

Quiz Game 1

My heart sang when our younger daughter came out of the disordered cavern she calls a bedroom, took one look at my computer screen—I had again lugged my desktop computer into the classroom—pumped her right arm and exclaimed, “Yes!” Her sister reacted positively as well.

The rules were simple. I alternated which daughter would answer the question— older daughter went first based upon the scientifically-rigorous method Eenie Meenie Minie Moe. The questions covered everything we had discussed in the previous two weeks—political theory, American politics, statistics and the history film noir. Each question was worth one point and had four possible answers, though one answer was deliberately patently absurd; they had the desired effect of making the quiz feel less like work and more like a game. Finally, if one daughter did not answer a question correctly, her sister had the opportunity to answer it.

In the end, after a boisterous 45 minutes of laughter, our older daughter won 16-12, with two points going to Daddy because neither daughter answered two questions correctly. Her “prize,” besides bragging rights, was a giant box of Cheerios I had recently discovered in the revolving cupboard in the kitchen. Huffily reminding me, “I no longer eat cereal, I eat OATMEAL,” she declined her prize, which now sits discreetly on the kitchen counter next to my coffee maker.

There is just no pleasing some people.

And with that our second week of home schooling came to an end.

**********

As I said, we are still figuring out how best to home school our smart and curious daughters. After two weeks of political science and math—not coincidentally, my initial choices for my Yale major—I have settled upon the following tentative weekly schedule:

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

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

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

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

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

Onward and, you know, forward we go.

Until next time…please stay safe and healthy…

Organizing by themes: Responding to COVID-19

As of March 13, 2020, my wife Nell, our two daughters–one in 4th grade and one in 6th grade–have been sheltering in place and home schooling in our Brookline, Massachusetts apartment. To prepare for this, Nell and I purchased workbooks, a flip chart and a very popular white board.

The white board awaits

You may read my “dispatches from Brookline” below:

March 18, 2020

March 19, 2020

March 20, 2020

March 24, 2020

March 25, 2020

March 27, 2020

April 1, 2020

April 4, 2020

April 8, 2020

April 11, 2020

April 14, 2020

April 19, 2020

April 22, 2020

Until next time…please stay safe, sensible and healthy…

Dispatches from Brookline: Home Schooling and Social Distancing V

On Wednesday, March 25, 2020, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker issued an executive order extending the closure of all public schools in the Commonwealth until at least May 4, 2020.

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

**********

To give our daughters something of a break during the week—especially our younger daughter, who has a yet-to-be-formally-diagnosed learning disability and attention deficit disorder—there is no “school” on Wednesday mornings. This means that when I came downstairs on March 25, 2020, Nell had not written a daily schedule on the flip chart. This likely saddened our younger daughter who was apparently going to have free reign over what the afternoon classes would be called.

To be fair, the girls had done something broadly educational that morning. With Nell, they had watched and discussed two episodes of The Blue Planet.

And they are continuing to produce drawings at a solid clip.

Wall of art March 25

The framed painting in the middle is one of two I bought when I first moved back to the Boston area—Waltham, to be precise—from my native Philadelphia in early September 2005. I do not recall why I entered the Martin Lawrence Galleries on Newbury Street (which appears recently to have closed), but once inside I was quite taken with a collection of paintings by Liudmila Kondakova. Using funds from a recent inheritance, I bought this painting and a smaller one. Both depict Paris street scenes, and both have my last name written somewhere in them.

**********

The break from school work does not extend to the afternoons, so we convened just after 2:45 pm to discuss the history of the American presidential nominating system. My attached notes for this class were a bit more scattershot than usual, but they worked well enough to tell a series of what I hoped would be interesting stories.

March 25.docx

I noted in “Dispatch IV” our daughters’ penchant for assigning monikers to historical figures. Well, they came close to doing that when I came to the 1960 Democratic nomination process, and I explained one of the primary contenders that year was United States Senator (“Senator”) Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota.

“Who names a kid ‘Hubert?” asked our older daughter. “Did his parents want him to get teased his whole life?”

After observing his middle name was Horatio—he was once erroneously referred to as Hubert Horatio Hornblower—I defended the late Vice President as a good and honorable man, though I never did get around to discussing his groundbreaking speech on civil rights at the 1948 Democratic national convention.

We concluded with a rapid-fire discussion of how Democrats—proportionally, with a minimum of 15% statewide or in a Congressional district—and Republicans—mostly winner-take-all—differ in the way they apportion nominating convention delegates.

This was followed by easily the most cringeworthy moment I have thus far endured as a parent.

I had been talking about the role “expectations” play in the modern primary and caucus system, One example I used was the way then-Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton used a 2nd place finish in the 1992 New Hampshire Democratic Primary to label himself “The Comeback Kid.”

They had been vaguely aware of Clinton’s marital indiscretions, and they understood he had been impeached for lying under oath about cheating on his wife while he was president of the United States. What they did not know, though, were the sordid details.

And they very much wanted to know what they are; they essentially promised to hear the end of my spiel in exchange.

So…after pouring myself a fresh cup of hot black coffee, half-decaffeinated to brace myself…I told them.

I did not use the words “blow job” or “fellatio,” but I described how a government shutdown in 1995 had allowed Clinton to spend time alone in the Oval Office with a young White House intern named Monica Lewinsky. And how one time she had worn a blue dress. And how she kept that dress after it came to have Clinton’s semen on it after a certain action I described…

…at which our older daughter interjected, “Oooo, gross! He peed through that! Why would anyone ever want to do that?!?”—or words broadly to that effect. Our younger daughter, meanwhile, just sat quietly, listening.

They particularly wanted to know why Ms. Lewinsky had kept that dress.

“Well, Clinton kept lying about what they had done. So she kept it as proof.”

And that was that.

Oy.

**********

At just after 4:45 pm, we reconvened for what I had thought would be the most fun part of the afternoon.

I wanted to talk about random sampling—the idea that you could get, for example, a fairly accurate impression of the distribution of attitudes in a very large population by randomly identifying a much smaller proportion of that population. However, I should have known that things would go awry when I used this example: a group of one million people includes 750,000 (75%) who prefer chocolate ice cream and 250,000 (25%) who prefer vanilla ice cream. Rather than ask every one of those people which flavor they prefer one could simply randomly select 1,000 of them to ask. Most of the time, if you sample properly, you will come within a few percentages either way of 75 and 25.

Well, our younger daughter simply wasn’t having it.

“What if someone doesn’t like either?” she began.

I explained this was merely an example, but that did not work.

“What if you like some other flavor?”

“It is a forced choice,” I weakly noted.

At this point, her sister chimed in.

“Well, which one do you prefer?”

This led to a long pause which ended in a non-answer.

At this point, I simply began talking about the activity we were about to do, one that involved 100 carefully selected cards from an UNO deck.

What I wanted to do was illustrate how queried multiple random samples from an identical population will center around “true” values within that population. My original conception was to put something like 60 blue and 40 red of the same small objects into a hat—Nell’s grandfather’s top hat lives in my home office—and have them draw 15 balls from that hat 10 times. We would record those draws to see how close they came to 60% blue and 40% red in the aggregate.

Of course, we did not have quite the objects I was envisioning, and I did not really want to cut up small bits of blue- and red-colored paper. That was when I remembered our bedraggled deck of UNO cards. There were enough cards remaining for me to compile a deck of 100 cards:

  • 50 blue and green cards, with the former “definitely voting Democratic” and the latter “leaning toward voting Democratic”
  • 43 red and yellow cards, with the former “definitely voting Republican” and the latter “leaning toward voting Republican”
  • 7 wild cards, for undecided voters

What I had not counted on was just how hard it is to shuffle—and I mean really, properly, thoroughly shuffle—a deck of 100 cards. Thus, what I thought would be a fun exercise where the girls alternated which one drew 15 cards and which one tallied the colors on the white board quickly devolved into a “why is this taking so long?” battle of long stretches of card shuffling, slow drawing and slower tallying.

Perhaps I was still reacting to the news we would be home schooling five weeks longer than we had anticipated. Perhaps I was overtired—this is more exhausting than I had expected. Or perhaps I was mad at myself for choosing an overly-thick deck of cards I could not properly “randomize.”

Whatever the reason, I snapped multiple times at both daughters, making the older one huffy and the younger one teary. I apologized—again; Nell, who taught elementary school for more than a decade, gently pointed out this is why you do not teach children “at 5:30…they are toast.”

For all the drama, however, we managed to draw 15 sets of cards. As you see, the results were not what I had anticipated. The 21 yellow cards kept making a disproportionate appearance.

Sampling results March 25

Here is a graphical representation of the results. Had I not counted the cards very carefully, I would almost think I simply had the “true” totals reversed; it is more likely simply very difficult properly to shuffle a double-deck of cards…and that randomness does not guarantee anything.

Biased sampling March 25

Even teachers have things to learn from their own lessons.

Until next time…please stay safe and healthy…

Dispatches from Brookline: Home Schooling and Social Distancing IV

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For an explanation of POINTS, please see here.

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

March 23

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

Happy Monday Gerald and Piggy

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

March 23

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

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

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

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

Issue Differences Democrat v Republican

Whatever makes you happy, kid.

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

How Groups Voted for President 2004-16.docx

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

Group voting for president

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of course it was,” I assured her.

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

C’est la vie.

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

March 24

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

March 24

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

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

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

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

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

How Hillary Clinton Lost in 2016.docx

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

Discussing 2016 election

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

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

Color in a blank map to show current state partisanship

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

States Ordered from Most to Least Democratic

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

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

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

Hand drawn Democratic strength map

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

Until next time…please stay safe and healthy…

Dispatches from Brookline: Home Schooling and Social Distancing II

In a previous post, I described how my wife Nell, our two daughters and I were coping with social distancing and the closure of the public schools in Brookline, Massachusetts until at least April 3, 2020. Other than 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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On Thursday, March 19, 2020, I came downstairs to find this in the “classroom.”

March 19

Unlike the previous day, our daughters had a much smoother morning. Nell set up the video game Just Dance on the big screen HD television in our living room, which was particularly good for our 6th-grade daughter, who requires a great deal of regular physical activity. Our 4th-grade daughter would generally prefer to sit quietly in a darkened bedroom with an iPad. Both daughters have also made extensive use of FaceTime to stay in touch with their many friends.

When “Dad Academy” began, our older daughter read aloud the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States of America (“Constitution”). We then proceeded to work through much of Article I, establishing the nature and role of the House of Representatives (“House”) and the Senate. After a brief foray into Article II and the qualifications for the presidency, however, it was clear their doodling minds were wandering.

As a result, I shifted gears and walked them through the scenario I detail below: what would happen as of 12:01 pm on January 20, 2021 if there were no November 2020 elections for the House, Senate, vice president and president. I had tweeted my initial thoughts on Wednesday, but as I sketched it out—much to their delight, I am pleased to report—I realized I had forgotten a crucial element. After a quick check of this year’s Senate elections, I made the appropriate revisions on Twitter and, more importantly, the white board.

This quickly devolved into both daughters sketching out their own mind-bogglingly grin doomsday scenarios on the white board, all of which seemed to end up with 50,000 or 100,000 survivors living on Antarctica and dividing up only whatever food they could carry with them. Hey, they were using their imaginations, thinking about geography and doing arithmetic, so I was not complaining.

After an hour-long break, we reconvened to resume learning about basic statistics. After quickly reviewing frequencies, range, mode, median, mean and a few statistical distributions, I decided to change my lesson plan again. Rather than begin to discuss relationships between variables, I put my doctorate in epidemiology to good use and explained “sensitivity” and “specificity” of testing for some condition like, say, the novel coronavirus. They quickly grasped the underlying idea:

  1. Persons who have the condition AND test positive are True Positives
  2. Persons who do not have the condition AND test negative are True Negatives
  3. Persons who do not have the condition AND test positive are False Positives
  4. Persons who do have the condition AND test negative are False Negatives

If you divide True Positives by the sum of True Positives and False Negatives you get sensitivity: the percentage of persons who truly have the condition who test positive for it.

If you divide the number of True Negatives by the sum of True Negatives and False Positives you get specificity: the percentage of persons who truly do not have the condition who test negative for it.

It is nearly impossible to have a test be both 100% sensitive AND 100% specific because of the likely gray area between an extremely tight case definition (e.g., you must meet all 10 criteria)—which gives you higher sensitivity—and a relatively looser definition (e.g., you only need to meet five out of 10 criteria)—which gives you higher specificity. For a host of reasons I will not review here, mostly related to accuracy of categorization, epidemiologists generally prefer to have the specificity of a test be as close to 100% as possible, even at the risk of lower (by which I mean, say, 90% instead of 95%) sensitivity.

Think of it this way, though: the lower the specificity of the test, the more False Positives you have. And the more False Positives you have, the more people you have being treated for the condition at the expense of other people who actually need to be treated. Moreover, given that most conditions being tested are fairly rare, there will always be many fewer False Negatives than False Positives; one exception, though, would be if you only test persons you are already very certain have the condition, which bring the number of False Negatives much closer to the number of False Positives.

And with that—and a review of some of our older daughter’s algebra problems—school was out for the day.

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Ohio was supposed to hold its 2020 Democratic presidential primary on March 17. It was postponed until June 2, however, due to concerns over spreading the novel coronavirus. Five other states have done the same thing, meanwhile, leading to speculation President Donald J. Trump may attempt to postpone—or outright cancel—the November 2020 federal elections (Congress, vice president, president).

Leaving aside whether such an action is even feasible—for one thing, while under Article I, Section 5, the House and Senate have broad authority over the timing of elections to their respective houses, those elections are actually administered by each individual state. The same is true for elections for vice president and president—and that is before considering that the Electoral College essentially mandates 51 distinct elections, one within each state and the District of Columbia.

But let us assume, as a kind of thought experiment, it actually would be possible to delay these elections. So long as the presidential and vice-presidential elections were held long enough before December 13, 2020—the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December, when electors are required to meet in their respective states to cast their presidential ballots—there would be more than enough time to swear in a president the following January 20.

However, if these elections simply never occur…well, this is where two sections of the Constitution and the Presidential Succession Act of 1947 (PSA) come into play.

  • Under Amendment XX, Section 1: “The terms of the President and the Vice President shall end at noon on the 20th day of January,
  • “…and the terms of Senators and Representatives at noon on the 3d day of January.”
  • Under the PSA, the line of succession to the president is the vice president, followed by the Speaker of the House, the President Pro Tempore of the Senate—the longest-serving member of the Senate of the majority party—and members the Cabinet, beginning with the Secretary of State.

In other words, barring a non-starter Constitutional amendment, an Act of Congress (hard to see Democrats going along with this) or a very-unlikely ruling by the Supreme Court (the Constitution explicitly states that as as of 12:01 pm on January 20, 2021, Trump and Michael R. Pence would no longer be the president and vice president of the United States, respectively.

And for the previous 17 days, there would also be no Speaker of the House because the term of every one of the 435 members of the House would have ended at noon on January 3, 2021.

I note at this point that Amendment XX, Section 1 ends with “the terms of their successors shall then begin,” so it is just barely possible an argument could be made the terms of the president, vice president, House members and Senators would not end because there are no successors. Without a successor, there are no occupants of those offices, effectively shutting down the federal government.

Here is the counter-argument, however, and where things get really interesting.

There would still be a United States Senate, albeit one 35% smaller, at 12:01 pm on January 3, 2021, meaning there would still be a President Pro Tempore to assume the office of the presidency, and who would then nominate someone to be vice president pending Senate approval.

There would still be a Senate because only 35 of the 100 Senators are reaching the end of their terms this year.[1] Fully 65 Senators will still be serving at that time: 35 Democrats (including two Independents, Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Angus King of Maine, who caucus with the Democrats) and 30 Republicans.

That is right: rather than the current Senate, which has a 53-47 Republican majority, this “abridged” Senate would have a 35-30 Democratic majority. And the longest-serving Democratic Senator—who is not up for reelection in 2020—is Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, who was first elected in 1974!

So…Leahy would absolutely become the 46th president of the United States, sworn somewhere by Chief Justice John J. Roberts?

Well…not so fast.

And that is because of what I had forgotten on Wednesday: under Amendment XVII, governors are empowered to appoint a replacement for a Senator who leaves office before the end of her/his term—just about always a member of the same party as the governor.

In this scenario, these governors immediately appoint replacement Senators as soon as those 35 Senate terms expire at noon on January 3, 2021…and they are sworn in immediately. Traditionally, the vice president swears in each new Senator, so that may be the fly in the ointment here. Presumably, though, in this unusual circumstance Chief Justice Roberts could swear in all the appointed Senators at one time, somewhere in Washington, DC.

As for the governors themselves:

  • In the 12 states where a Democratic Senate term is ending there are
    • 8 Democratic governors
    • 2 Republican governors
    • 1 Democratic governor up for reelection in Delaware
    • 1 Republican governor up for reelection in New Hampshire
  • In the 22 states where a Republican Senate term is ending (with two in Georgia) there are
    • 15 Republican governors filling 16 seats
    • 6 Democratic governors
    • 1 Democratic governor not seeking reelection in Montana

Excluding the three states where a gubernatorial election is being held (or not…as our younger daughter pointed out, why would there be elections for governor if all the federal elections were postponed?), the new Senate would now include:

  • 35 + 8 + 6 = 49 Democrats
  • 30 + 2 + 16 = 48 Republicans

This is still a bare 49-48 Democratic majority, making Leahy the 46th president.

IF gubernatorial elections are held in Delaware and New Hampshire this November, though, it is very likely the incumbent wins both races, which adds one new Democratic and one new Republican Senator, for a bare 50-49 Democratic majority…and President Leahy.

That leaves it all up to Montana.

IF there is a Montana gubernatorial election this November, the Republican nominee would likely be favored to win. In that case, we would wind up with a 50-50 tie in the Senate. And with no vice president to break the tie, it is not clear whether Leahy or Republican Charles R. Grassley of Iowa, who was first elected in 1980. Of course, if a Democrat were elected the next governor of Montana, that would result in a 51-49 Democratic Senate majority…and President Leahy.

Perhaps the nod still goes to Leahy in the case of a 50-50 Senate split, as the longest-serving Senator overall. Perhaps there is something like a coin flip. Or maybe these two men—who have served together in the United States Senate for 40 years and are around 80 years of age—decide to serve jointly, with one as president and one as vice president.

The bottom line, though, is that it is far more likely than not that if there are no federal elections this November, Democratic Senator Patrick Joseph Leahy of Vermont would be sworn in at 12:01 pm EDT on January 20, 2021 as the 46th president of the United States.

Until next time…please be safe and sensible out there…

[1] Including Republican Kelly Loeffler, appointed to replace retiring Republican Johnny Isakson in December 2019.