This 9/11, on Shakespeare and remembrance

My Herald-Leader column for this Friday, Sep. 13

Lind Hall, University of Minnesota

Like most Americans, I wake up heavy every 9/11. This year, I also woke up remembering the Shakespeare class I was in that day at the University of Minnesota, and how teachers open us up and change the way we think about the world.

I was 36 years old. And I should not have been in Professor Leyasmeyer’s—Archie’s—class that day. But when I’d decided to go back to college a few years earlier, I’d confidently signed up for Beginning Shakespeare only to drop it after two classes. The teacher, a woman whose name I can’t recall, spoke in fancy literary terms and rattled off so much Shakespearean prose I felt ashamed. I did not belong with those kids almost 20 years my junior, I thought. I wasn’t smart enough to be there.

Of course, I didn’t tell anyone at the time. Not my husband or my kids, who were proud of me for going back to school. And certainly not my mother, who was, at only 56, in end-stage COPD and emphysema, and who busied herself telling every doctor and nurse she saw how smart I was, how proud she was of me. I just quietly dropped the class and moved on. Later. I would try Shakespeare again later.

Which is how I found myself in Lind Hall, in Archie’s classroom, on 9/11.

It was late morning. We didn’t know what was happening yet, but I remember looking up at the sky a lot, at the tops of buildings, as there were many (thankfully false) reports that there could be more attacks and they didn’t know where. I remember what a gorgeous, sunny, Fall day it was. I remember the half-empty parking lot. I remember walking across the campus quad and how eerie it felt with so few students there. But our class? Our class was full.

We were studying King Lear. Archie was elderly then, a year from retirement after four decades teaching, and he began by saying he knew we were all worried, but there was nothing we could do at this moment. “So let’s learn,” he said. “For the next 85 minutes, let’s take turns reading aloud, and let’s find comfort in the beautiful history of language.”

And so, we read.

“The weight of this sad time we must obey,
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest hath borne most: we that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.”

“No, I’ll not weep.
I have full cause of weeping, but this heart
Shall break into a hundred thousand flaws,
Or ere I’ll weep.”

In the end, it was Archie who, when it was his turn, simply went silent. He leaned back onto the front of his desk, looked at us, his class, and cried. Then he stood by the door, his worn copy of King Lear in one hand, and he hugged each of us as we left class.

Fast forward 18 years. When I turned on my laptop, I went looking for my teacher, for Archie.

But as happens now, the first thing I saw was a Trump tweet. It was jarring. Minutes before he was set to be on the White House lawn to lead a 9/11 remembrance, he wrote, “If it weren’t for the never ending Fake News about me, and with all that I have done (more than any other President in the first 2 1/2 years!), I would be leading the “Partners” of the LameStream Media by 20 points. Sorry, but true!”

Who finds comfort in language like this? And yet this is what we live with now, what we are punished with daily, even on the 18th anniversary of 9/11.

I found Archie’s obituary. He died October 22, 2016, two weeks before the election. It read, “Born in Latvia in 1935, Leyasmeyer was living in a refugee camp in southern Germany at the end of WWII. At 14, he arrived in the US, knowing no English. At 18, he enrolled at Harvard.” He went on to get his Masters and PhD from Princeton. (You can read the full write up here.)

Archie once wrote, “the richness of human life and cultures on this little blue-white planet, so beautiful, so fragile, floating in the darkness of space.” As I sit here with his poetry on 9/11, as I remember his passion for life and for teaching, I can’t help but wonder what he might have put down on a “merit-based” immigration form.

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Please rescue an elderly dog

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We found Handsome, an elderly Golden Retriever, in Manteca, California in December 2013.

He’d been surrendered to a small, rural, high kill shelter in the desert, and they called Golden Rescue to say they had a sweet dog who was going to be put down. He was old, they said, and white-faced. Skinny, sickly, weak, and timid, with no chance of being adopted. And they did not have room.

This is no sales pitch.

I got a call from a woman I knew (barely, to be honest) at rescue. They’d pulled an old golden from the shelter, and a seemingly kind woman had taken him home and brought him back after one day. The woman had left him on her deck while she went to work the next day, she said, and he’d barked all day and “made a mess.” She could not have that. Would I consider meeting him?

We had 2 dogs. We were not looking for a 3rd.

I checked Handsome’s profile online: “I am looking for someone to love me and to build my confidence again,” it read. “I am very loving and gentle. Please come meet me and give me a chance to show you who I am.”

Dear god. My husband took Friday off. We drove to Manteca. The first time I knelt down on the concrete, Handsome sat and handed me his paw. Then he slept in my lap for the 2+  hour drive home.

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He really was very sick. That was true. But after a few false starts (and some weeks of diarrhea) we found the right food and an enzyme combination that settled his insides down. He gained almost 30 pounds. And he lived another six years.

When we moved to Kentucky, we drove him (and our other 2 dogs) back-and-forth 5 times. Handsome was never happier than when he was in the car …. or truck, or boat, or golf cart, or tractor scoop. He simply loved to go wherever you were going. This picture was taken our first day in our new Kentucky home, after a 4 day, 35 hour drive.

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If you met Handsome, you loved him. Not like. Love. I will always remember our friend, Nancy, sitting in the chair with him every time she came over, and our friend Teresa rolling down the driveway in her golf cart for the sole purpose of taking him for a ride. When I say he was the best dog, this is not hyperbole.

We often hear people say how great it was that we adopted an older dog. Please. We are far from saints. We also have a well-bred Lab who eats poop and never stops jumping on people, and we adopted a hound-mix puppy 2 years ago who’s sweet, but very fearful. What we are is open, and I write this —- on the occasion of Handsome’s death —- to ask you to be open, too. To be open to an elderly rescue dog.

There are so many Handsomes out there. There just are. We once rescued a 12+ year old lab named Annie Belle whose family dropped her at the shelter because their kids were tired of having a dog. As my friend Donna in rescue says, when an older dog is surrendered, they look around quietly like there must be some mistake. “What happened?” they seem to ask. “Why am I here?” These are real stories. And these dogs, these lovely friends, are waiting and waiting and waiting … for you.

Exactly one week before his death, we had a photographer at the house and she unknowingly took this final photo. Our best boy, his face raised to the sun._MG_5147.jpg

This is what Hope looks like.

Tell me why we should vote Trump in 2020

* August 14 OpEd *

Tell me why you support Donald Trump. Tell me why we should vote for him again in 2020. What’s your pitch?

Is it the economy, the tax cuts? Because I know lots of teachers with second jobs, and I’ve heard many a pastor say money is the root of all evil.

Is it his support of farmers? Because his ill-advised tariffs are destroying farmers. According to a July 25 Bloomberg report, “American farm income dropped 16% last year to $63 billion, about half the level it was as recently as 2013.”

Is it the most popular GOP talking points? Because Democrats don’t want open borders, there is no such thing as aborting a baby in the ninth month, and we don’t want your guns.

So, what’s left? Socialism?

President Trump has approved $16 billion in aid to farmers (on top of $12 billion last year) to let their crops rot in the silos because he’s hell-bent on a trade war. Twenty-eight billion in free government money. Hmmm, I believe there’s a name for that.

On August 3, a 21 year-old white gunman—not an immigrant, not MS-13—drove ten hours to El Paso (which is more than 80% Hispanic), murdered 22 and left more than two dozen wounded. In his manifesto he was obsessed with the “Hispanic invasion” and “open borders.”

Where have we heard that language before?

Back in July 2015, at a rally in Phoenix, then-candidate Trump said, “Mexico — I respect the country — they’re taking our jobs, they’re taking our manufacturing, they’re taking our money, they’re taking everything, and they’re killing us at the border. Don’t worry, we’ll take our country back.” Words he has hammered home hundreds of times in the last four years, warning of an “invasion” at his rallies and on Twitter.

Must be a coincidence.

As our country spent the first weekend of August inundated by reports of yet another mass shooting, the president reportedly played golf and dropped by a wedding at his private club. On Sunday, following another mass shooting in Dayton, Ohio, it was reported that he again played golf.

What he did not do was his job, which was to talk to his citizens, to address the fears of a panicked, grieving nation.

It is notable that he has never, not once, attended a funeral after a tragedy like this, given a eulogy, or attended a vigil where he could express his support and empathy for a community in pain. How do you explain that?

The president has developed a routine for dropping by the sites of mass shootings. He swoops in for a few hours, shakes hands, holds a photo op with hospital staff and first responders where he smiles and gives his famous thumbs up, and then he’s out of there.

You know who’s not at the hospital or the police station? The families of the the dead. How does the president not spend even one day with the families of victims? How does he leave without listening to them, without comforting them, without asking what he can do to help?

We all know how wrung out, how gutted and raw we feel on the days of and surrounding a death. But as the president traveled from Dayton to El Paso on August 7, he was busy watching TV coverage of himself. And tweeting.

“Watching Sleepy Joe Biden making a speech. Sooo Boring! The LameStream Media will die in the ratings and clicks with this guy.”

“Watching Fake News CNN is better than watching Shepard Smith.”

“I don’t know who Joaquin Castro is other than the lesser brother of a failed presidential candidate (1%) who makes a fool of himself every time he opens his mouth.”

“I saw failed Presidential Candidate (0%) Sherrod Brown & Mayor Whaley totally misrepresenting what took place inside of the hospital. Their news conference after I left for El Paso was a fraud.”

Back in Washington DC, his final tweet of the night ended, “…how did that work out for the Haters and Losers. Not well!”

This, on the day he traveled to two cities reeling from death and violence. There is something desperately wrong. Hence the question: Why do you support this man? And why should the rest of us vote for him in 2020?

What’s your pitch?

Toxic

At the park, I am putting my dog in the car after a long walk when I hear him — “Stop it,” he yells. “Sit down, I said sit! Sit, sit, sit. Knock it the hell off goddammit!” — and I turn to see the elderly man I passed half a mile ago on the trail, yanking his dog’s leash with one hand while beating him with the other.

The dog yelps and cries, cowering with each anticipated blow. I start toward them and that’s when I spot her, the man’s wife, continuing on down the trail as though nothing is happening.

“Mister, stop!” I say, waving my arms, trying to pull his attention my way. “My god, what are you doing, stop, you’re hurting your dog, please stop.” But he turns his back to me and keeps at it, his dog now upside down on the ground, and I realize I am making it worse, that now the man has to keep beating his dog to teach me a lesson, too. I take my cue from the wife. I get in my car, and I drive away.

This is also how Congress has chosen to deal with the onslaught of abuses perpetrated by this president. Whether he’s landing racist punches on Twitter or doubling-down on those attacks from the South Lawn of the White House, Republicans, who have to live in the same house with him, mosey on down the trail knowing there is nothing they can do to stop him and fearful of drawing the abuse their way.

Democrats, like me, wave their arms in the air begging him to stop until they, too, realize they’re only making the situation worse.

And meanwhile it’s the American people, the citizens on both sides of the aisle who elected these leaders, who remain left behind and upside down, taking a beating.

In his new bookThe Man They Wanted Me To Be: Toxic masculinity and a crisis of our own making, author Jared Yates Sexton explains that men like the president “are prisoners of toxic masculinity, an artificial construct whose expectancies are unattainable, thus making them exceedingly fragile and injurious to others, not to mention themselves. The illusion convinces them from an early age that men deserved to be privileged and entitled, that women and men who don’t conform to traditional standards are second-class persons, are weak and thus detestable.”

Consider how often this president uses the word “weak” to define those he deems disloyal or, worse, critical.

About Joe Biden the president said, “I think he’s the weakest mentally. And I like running against people that are weak mentally. I think Joe is the weakest up here.”

He famously said about Michael Cohen, his personal lawyer for more than a decade, “He was given a fairly long jail sentence, and he’s a weak person, and by being weak, unlike other people that you watch, he’s a weak person.”

He even uses the term to define the laws of the United States he was elected to govern, tweeting on June 22, 2018, “The U.S. has pathetically weak and ineffective Immigration Laws that the Democrats refuse to help us fix. Will speak to Mexico!”

He recently called former Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, ”weak, ineffective & stupid,”
but it was far from the first time, tweeting way back on October 11, 2016, “Our very weak and ineffective leader, Paul Ryan, had a bad conference call where his members went wild at his disloyalty.”

After which Speaker Ryan, second in line to the presidency, went on, like the wife on the trail, to keep his mouth shut and live with him.

Weak weak weak.

In the world of Trump, there is no sin more odious than weakness, and he succeeds because, as Sexton describes in his book, “he is the personification of white American masculinity. His gruff demeanor, constant threats, boasting about his money and power, his wanton promiscuity, his propensity of blatant cruelty, and his bullying of opponents, which [is] like something out of a schoolyard socialization, are all traits we’ve come to associate with men in this country.” (p. 215)

I take a few weeks away from the park trail, and when I finally go back I note the man now carries the leash in one hand and a stick in the other. Friends offer advice.

If he beats the dog again, pull out your phone and record it, then show the police.

Walk right up, yank that stick out of his hand, and beat the living hell out of him with it! That’s what I would do.

Tell him you saw him beating his dog, that you understand his frustration, and ask if you can help! Offer him a hug.

Give him the stare-down. Make sure he knows that you know, and that you’re watching him.

In the end, my 30 year-old son is my most sensible advisor. “Do nothing,” he says. “You don’t know this man, and you are a woman alone on the trail with your dog. He is obviously full of rage, who knows about what, and you live in Kentucky where everybody has a gun. What if he shoots your dog? What if he shoots you?”

What makes an elderly man beat his dog, in daylight, in public?

What makes the President of United States denigrate members of Congress—elected by the American people—by making racist statements and saying (falsely) that they hate their country?

The answer is the same. He believes it is his right, and he knows no one has the courage to stop him.

Now tell me, what are we doing to do about it?

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(if you have the answer, comments are turned on)

Free lunch ain’t free …. or, what it’s like to be a hungry kid

Last weekend I texted a high school friend to ask, “How much was our lunch in high school?” I noted that I thought it was 80 cents, or maybe it was 60, I wasn’t sure. She wrote back that she had no idea, but recalled getting a tiny salad because we thought we were fat. “I pretended that,” I replied, “but the truth was I rarely had lunch money,” adding, for levity, “Kept me skinny though!”

Levity. Because who wants to make a friend, even 40 years later, feel bad that you didn’t have money to eat?

When I read this paper’s recent editorial about school lunch programs and how free lunches aren’t free—yes, “free” lunch is logically being funded by someone, somewhere—I recalled how seldom I was able to buy lunch at school.

And then there was cheerleading camp. I was 15. I’d made the C squad (the lowest level), and we were required to attend summer camp on the grounds of our high school. My single mom had given me $20 (more than she could spare, truth be told) to cover soft drinks, snacks, and lunch. For five days.

“There was a Pizza Inn right down the street,” I said to my husband, folding The Anderson News and handing it back to him. “They had an all-you-can-eat lunch buffet, and it was only something like $3.99, but I would just order a Coke, lying that I wasn’t hungry or pretending I was on a diet.” I paused. “To this day I can tell you exactly what the Pizza Inn smelled like that week, and how hard it was to joke and smile at a table full of loud, happy girls while watching them eat until they were stuffed.”

I hesitate to tell stories like this. Who cares, I think. And I still don’t want any of those girls, all these years later, to feel sorry for me. How humiliating. I survived. I lived. But that would be to ignore how isolating it feels (and distracting from school work it is) to be the kid who can’t have the same hot lunch everyone else is having. To feel the poverty you can’t control, exposed.

“It’s okay,” our kids on alternative-lunch tell us, “It’s fine,” though I imagine their thought-bubble reads: Sure, grownups-in-charge, I can make do with this nice alternative lunch sandwich while my friends have the hot food I’ve been smelling in the halls since I got here this morning, just please don’t make a big deal, don’t make this any more humiliating than it already is.

The idea of our school district applying for free lunch for all of our kids is an almost-untouchable subject. What would it say about our community, our school, our families? How embarrassing, one mother said to me, we don’t want to be one of “those” districts, to be labeled like that.

I’ve talked to Anderson County parents who say school lunch costs them $150 or $225 or $300 a month, making my little 80 cents a day (a mere $16/month) seem like pennies. How many of our families are budget-strained by costs like this? And, more importantly, how many families would never in a million years admit it if they were?

On Sunday at 11:30 am, I went to our local park by Healing Field. It was 90 degrees. I noted the splash park at the entrance where six children were playing. Six. Our new splash park that, if I recall right, cost roughly half a million dollars.

Ah, I can hear your arguments. The splash park is a whole other budget. What about personal responsibility, don’t have ‘em if you can’t afford ‘em, free lunch ain’t free and all that. We don’t want to be one of “those” districts. Labeled. Humiliated.

The fact I can’t pin down the cost of school lunches, circa 1981, is like having an ear worm. Since age about 9, I’ve obsessed over numbers. I loved the competition inherent in flash cards. When my parents divorced, I considered the $50 a month in child support they often fought over and calculated my net worth to be $12.50 a week. And boy could I right off in my head figure the cost of our groceries, with tax, before chancing a checkout line short of cash.

Humiliation sure is a hard worker.

Home from the splash park, I pull out an old photo album and, sure enough, there I am at 15, posing in the driveway of our old, white farmhouse, rail-thin and smiling in my blue and white cheerleading uniform. Pretending.

Lost in America

Photo from Politico

“The Trump era is such a whirlwind of cruelty that it can be hard to keep track.”  ~ from “The Cruelty is the Point” by Adam Serwer at The Atlantic

This week, the president kicked off his 2020 re-election bid in Orlando, Florida, telling his cheering arena of supporters, “Our radical Democrat opponents are driven by hatred, prejudice, and rage. They want to destroy you, and they want to destroy our country as we know it.”

When did we begin to believe that our political opponents are not fellow Americans, but enemies?

Two and a half years into the Trump presidency, his message is clear: any person or organization who does not wrap a cocoon of unquestioning support and loyalty around him—liberals, newspapers, TV news, the FBI, NATO, etc.—is the enemy.

I often hear people say that this is not who we are. I am here to argue that this is exactly who we are.

Let’s start with immigration. A recent investigation by the New York Times revealed that the youngest child separated from his parents at the border was four months old. “[I]t would be months before his parents saw him again. Before then, his father would be sent for psychiatric evaluation in a Texas immigration detention center because he couldn’t stop crying; his mother would be hospitalized with hypertension from stress….Now more than a year and a half old, the baby still can’t walk on his own, and has not spoken.”

When I see Congressman Andy Barr, with his adorable little girls by his side, I want to ask how he, as a father, deigns to support an administration that would do such damage to a baby, to a family already in crisis?

We have become the friends, the allies, of despots. Case in point: a United Nations investigation has concluded that the brutal murder of Washington Post reporter Jamal Khashoggi was both deliberate and premeditated by high level officials in the Saudi regime. Mr. Khashoggi was injected with a sedative, a plastic bag was placed over his head to suffocate him to death, and then his body was dismembered with a bone-saw and disposed of.

And our president chose to look the other way, with Sen. Maj. Leader Mitch McConnell telling reporters, “Saudi Arabia is an important ally against the Iranians, so it is a difficult problem to figure out exactly the most appropriate response.”

We have a president who continually besmirches the office he holds. On June 6, minutes before he was to take the stage to commemorate 75 years since Allied forces stormed Omaha beach, President Trump sat for an interview with FOX’s Laura Ingraham, in which he said about Speaker Pelosi and Robert Mueller, “She’s incapable of doing deals, she’s a nasty, vindictive, horrible person, the Mueller report came out, it was a disaster for them. They thought their good friend Bobby Mueller was going to give them a great report.”

How is it possible that, with the graves of thousands who lost their lives as his TV backdrop, foremost on our president’s mind were his political enemies back home, including the person second in line to the presidency and the denigration of a Vietnam veteran awarded a Bronze Star and Purple Heart for his service to this country.

Eight days later, Gov. Matt Bevin tweeted, “Happy Birthday to our President…A great American and a great friend of Kentucky!”

When in our history, I would like to ask our governor, has “a great American” president—who did not serve in Vietnam, citing bone spurs that have never been proven to exist—been so arrogant, so tone-deaf, so disrespectful?

At his Orlando campaign rally, the president happily spurred on chants of, “Lock her up!” about an opponent he no longer has. But when asked if she was happy with him, one rally-goer said, “He says all of the things we’ve been wanting to say, doing the things we saw needed to be done, and he’s kept his promises. And if Congress could get their act together, he could do a lot more.” When asked what might have made him happier, one man replied, “Immigration stopped. Immigrants out. Build a wall. Other than that, I’m satisfied.”

Are you satisfied?

Do Trump supporters believe, as the the president said at his rally, that Democrats, fellow Americans, want to destroy this country?

Is this what Kentucky’s Rep. Barr, Sen. McConnell, and Gov. Bevin believe? If not, where is their leadership? Where are their statements to the contrary? Where is their courage?

Because if this is who we are, we are lost.

How liberals make chili


The week we bought our house in Lawrenceburg, I invited the neighbors I’d yet to lay eyes on for Sunday supper. Come at 5:00 or so for chili, I wrote to an unrecognizable email list. Can’t wait to meet everybody!

It was January. My husband was still working in California, so I was alone, waiting for the electrician, the Direct TV truck, and painters I’d hired online and hoped would show up. I had a bed and a couch. Now I needed chili-fixings for 20, a crockpot, a skillet, and disposable bowls and spoons, so off to Walmart and Kroger I went.

Come Sunday, the whole neighborhood showed up carrying welcome baskets. “I have to tell you,” one woman joked, “we heard you were from California, so we’ve been wondering what chili made with tofu would taste like.” We all laughed.

Four years on, when I read/hear locals who disagree with me politically call me vile and evil, or say “She can go back to California where she came from!” I wonder, who talks like this? And who in the world they are they are talking about?

I was born and raised in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, Rush Limbaugh’s hometown. I remember when Rush started his radio show, the year after I graduated high school. He was opinionated, but funny. Entertaining, but not mean-spirited or caustic. Not yet anyway. That would come later, when he learned that funny and entertaining only got you so far; the big money was in being a shock-jock, in being outrageous, and in tapping into feelings of anger and resentment at the so-called elites.

It worked. According to Forbes, Rush earned $84M in 2017, making him the 11th top-earning celebrity in the world. An elite. The joke is on his audience. I can no longer decipher what Rush believes in his heart from what he throws out as red meat, strictly to boost his ratings. I no longer recognize the Rush from my hometown.

To paraphrase something Truman Capote once said of his relationship to Perry Smith, one of the killers in “In Cold Blood,” it’s like Rush and I were raised in the same house, but one of us went out the front door and one went out the back.

Maybe it is the anonymity of social media or the common, name-calling, cruelty of our current president, but this is the first time in my 54 years that I’ve heard, “go back where you came from,” and I’ve lived in a lot of places—Cape, St. Louis, Phoenix, Cedar Rapids, Minneapolis, Seattle, Minneapolis again, San Jose—moving 31 times in all.

And California tends to strike a nerve, especially in this newspaper.

Yes, California is crowded, expensive, and the traffic is terrible (though I’ve come to think of Nicholasville Road in Lexington as a close second). But contrary to the false stereotypes perpetrated by Rush and his fellow elites-who-hate-elites at Fox news, all Californians are not crazy, nor or they all liberals.

Education is a priority, and we paid for it in taxes. But this translated into our public high school paying teachers a fair wage, and it was so academically rigorous that parents sometimes tried to get their kids transferred to lower-stress schools. Imagine.

The June issue of AARP Magazine has a chart showing California’s gas tax at 54.4 cents per gallon vs. 26 cents in Kentucky. I wonder, how many teacher salaries and pensions might we fund by increasing the gas tax by a few cents?

We found the Californians we knew to be excessively kind and accepting, Republicans and Democrats alike. The guy next door, who did not care one bit for Obama and does not believe in climate change was, and remains, a great friend. Our neighbors treated us like family. We celebrated Christmas and birthdays and more, together. They showed me how to cook things like bok choy and introduced us to good wine, and we got them hooked on chicken and dumplings and gooey butter cake. A fair trade.

Halloween was such an occasion that our realtor had to disclose it and have us initial the page. She was right. People decorated like mad, they closed the streets, and it was not uncommon to have a thousand people come to your door (this is not an exaggeration) saying, “Trick or Treat!”

I was known for my chili. Every Halloween during my decade in California I made the same chili I made in St. Louis, Phoenix, Cedar Rapids, Minneapolis, and Seattle, and while the kids got candy at the door, grownups were welcomed inside for a bowl and a glass of wine.

The secret to this liberal’s chili is not tofu, which still gives me and my Lawrenceburg neighbors a good laugh. The secret is my immigrant, great-grandmother’s recipe, which includes chorizo, Italian sausage, and ground beef, and (are you sitting down?) never draining the grease. And kindness.