Earlier this year, before the pandemic, before the protests (and riots), in another lifetime which I’ll simply call January, I bought my ten-year-old daughter a new puppy. We named her Tuesday. She’s a Norwich terrier, purebred and exhaustively credentialed, with brown and black fur that stands on end as though she got zapped. This characteristic in her coat is unusual, the result of a genetic mutation that makes her undesirable among purebred enthusiasts; Tuesday is what they call a fluffy. Fluffy or no, we love her, and for my daughter, 2020 will always be the year we got Tuesday.
An old friend of mine is running for citywide office in New York. He is a good person and I’m glad he’s running. Last night it stopped raining long enough so that he could have a socially distanced campaign event on a rooftop bar in Midtown. With mist crowning the high-rises surrounding ours, my friend worked the crowd. In lieu of handshakes, he knocked elbows and gesticulated like a base coach calling in a runner as he greeted and listened to would-be constituents. But with all of us in our COVID masks, the event felt strange, like a masquerade ball, and if the point of such a fete is to create an accountability-free environment, that’s the opposite of the atmosphere you’re aiming for at a successful political event. In the taxi home, I noticed a security camera and I thought how useless surveilling each other has become ever since we started wearing masks.
The fundraiser was just a drinks thing, so I have dinner at home. Amy Coney Barrett is getting confirmed on the television. First, there’s the vote on the Senate floor and the Democrats theatrically walk out. Then the Republicans have their ceremony at the White House. Everyone on all sides is gesturing and mooning in aspirational ways, as if what they say or do might enshrine itself in history, and the result is that it all feels even more theatrical and even less relevant. Paradoxically, the energy of these events feels like an undertow before an enormous wave breaks, rolls in, and washes us all away.
Is the wave that I’m intuiting a blue wave? The polling says it could be. But didn’t we learn in 2016 not to trust the polls? Or by not trusting the polls are we now overlearning the lessons of 2016? Election predictions quickly become dizzying. Occasionally, I’ll ask people who they think will win the election. Many say Biden. But many will also hedge and say they wouldn’t be surprised if Trump pulled it off. When I mention the poll numbers that place Biden firmly ahead, they’ll shrug in a disaffected way, and it’s a gesture that says, “Didn’t you get the memo? It’s 2020, facts don’t matter.”
My brother is a mathematician. Facts, numbers, logic—that’s kind of his thing. He does not understand this postmodern moment we’re living in, and doesn’t care to; he’s also never been that into watching the news. He told me once about Pascal’s wager, which has to do with the logic of believing in God. It goes like this:
God is or is not.
A game is being played where heads or tails will turn up.
You must wager, it is not optional.
Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing.
Wager, then, without hesitation that He is. There is here an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain.
When people tell me that they think Trump will win, I think they say this because they are using Pascal’s logic. They believe that if Trump loses, no one will remember that they said he had a shot at winning. But if Trump wins, everyone will admire their prescience. It strikes me as a cynical way to think about the election; then again, friends have occasionally reminded me how four years ago I thought Trump would win. I am still using Pascal’s logic.
Sometimes in political conversations, I’ll ask a person if they know why we vote on Tuesday. Most people don’t know, but it’s a fun fact, a bit of nonpartisan trivia that’s good at diffusing political conversations when they become too heated. The reason we vote on a Tuesday is because when the Founders looked at the week, they determined that you couldn’t vote on a Sunday (because that was God’s day) and you couldn’t vote on a Monday (because people needed time to travel by horse and buggy to the polling place), so you voted on Tuesday.
That’s how Tuesday became Election Day, and as I write this, Tuesday the dog lies asleep at my feet, twitching. I wonder what visions she sees in her dreams.
“Today is the day of days . . .”
This morning—stepping out of the shower, laying out my clothes, brewing my coffee—I keep saying the above, with an old-timey WASP-ish accent that’s supposed to approximate the voice of General Eisenhower who, when addressing the combined Allied invasion fleet, described D-Day in the same terms. I’m doing this to try to elicit a smile out of my wife, who is nervous and has already told me that I’m not allowed to judge her if she spends the majority of today in bed. “No judgement,” I assured her. I’m tired of judgement, exhausted by judgement. Four years is a long time to be so judge-y. Today is the day of days.
I simply want today to end.
Last night, going to bed, I kept cycling through the cable news channels: CNN to Fox, Fox to MSNBC, MSNBC to CNN. My theory is that an aggregation of these three realities might bring me closer to understanding what’s really happening across the country as we hurtle into this election, but the result is like trying to triangulate the truth from a person with triple personality disorder. Nevertheless, I end the evening intuiting that Trump will win.
Maybe it’s the way he’s dancing to the Village People’s “YMCA” as it approaches midnight in Wisconsin, or the big crowds, or a belief that in American politics the most dramatic outcome usually becomes the most likely. It’s just a hunch, and if I’m wrong I’ll likely regret writing these words, as they will make me sound a bit foolish. But like the news channels with their personality disorders, the entire country seems to be in the throes of a psychotic episode and the application of statistical analysis—as we see earnestly presented to us by pollster after pollster—seems inadequate to this moment. The only thing that seems rational is the irrational. Trump winning a second term would be completely irrational.
I have this past week developed an ear infection and will spend the afternoon at a doctor’s office on Manhattan’s East Side. I plan to walk to my appointment, and my route will take me past many storefronts with their windows boarded up. But I wonder if there might be a spike of visits to ear doctors as we reach the end of this election season. My wife teases me and says that ear infections are something only babies get. I ask her if she thinks I’m being a baby. She doesn’t answer and gives me a list of a few things to pick up from the market on the way home, including a bottle of wine that we’ll polish off this evening as we watch the returns come in.
There’s a part of me that imagines us watching the election on the little television in our kitchen, all hunkered down for the long night with the many treats I’ve picked up from the grocery store—olives, salted almonds, gummy bears (for me), popcorn (for her) and, of course, that bottle of wine. Then, before we really even get going, the last of the returns will come in from Florida and Trump will have lost the state: that’s it, kaput. It’s not even ten o’clock and my wife and I are putting away all the uneaten groceries and going to bed and it’s all . . . just . . . over.
No riots in the streets.
No election decided by the Supreme Court.
All that expectation, the grand finale, it ends at ten o’clock eastern.
In some ways such an anticlimax would be the greatest possible repudiation of Trump’s presidency. If the standard by which this president measures his greatness—and even American greatness—is television ratings, having every television set turned off by 10:00 p.m. would place Trump’s defeat into a language that he understands.
Still, YMCA . . . Wisconsin at midnight . . . the size of those crowds . . . I’m struggling to believe that this is what will happen. The alternatives: A Trump upset on par with 2016 . . . a tight and disputed election leading to widespread violence . . . I’m also struggling to imagine these outcomes.
Today is the day of days. It’s how I feel, but it doesn’t tell me what today will bring. I’m exhausted by the guessing, and as I struggle to imagine that distant vista which is simply tomorrow morning, my phone pings. It’s a text message from my wife:
I love you how is your ear?
Last week and the election, and Biden’s victory, is all overshadowed this morning by the date on the calendar. Today is the 225th birthday of the Marine Corps. I served as a Marine, so I am a Marine, and if I need any reminder, all morning my phone is filled with a steady stream of text messages from old comrades who are wishing me a “Happy Birthday,” as is the custom. To outsiders, it may seem juvenile to witness so many adults exchanging birthday wishes or memes via text message about being the meanest, fighting-est, hard-drinking-est, service among the five in the Department of Defense (actually, the Space Force founded under Trump makes six), but it is a reassuring reminder of the enduring nature of institutions in a year when the enduring nature of anything has felt tenuous. Or, put another way, as it was put by Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, the sadistic drill instructor in Stanley Kubrick’s 1987 masterpiece, Full Metal Jacket: “But always remember this, Marines die, that’s what we’re here for. But the Marine Corps lives forever, and that means you live forever.”
Tonight, about a mile away from the Philadelphia Convention Center, where for the past week poll workers have counted ballots, Marines old and young will celebrate the birthday at Tun Tavern, the site of the Corps’s founding in 1775. Ours is an institution older than the country it serves. A military truism is that the Army has its tanks, the Navy has its ships, the Air Force has its planes, but the Marine Corps has its culture. The Marine Corps is small enough (give or take 175,000 Marines) that it coheres in ways the other services don’t, which are each around a half-million strong. That doesn’t mean that élan doesn’t exist in their ranks—who hasn’t heard of the 101st Airborne “Screaming Eagles”—but merely that it must disassemble into smaller units in order to create a coherent institutional culture. The Marine Corps, which is the smallest of the services, is the largest single entity in the United States Military that coheres as a whole.
America isn’t doing such a great job of cohering at the moment. Election night was dramatic. Seeing Florida go for Trump early on and decisively left many—myself included—believing we were in for a repeat of 2016. Then Arizona went for Biden, and the remaining states began to align in his favor. By Wednesday morning it seemed Biden had locked it up. The turnout is what’s most remarkable: 154 million Americans voted. Most people applaud that number. I’m not feeling so sure. Enthusiasm in a democracy is great, but is what we’re seeing enthusiasm for democracy or an enthusiasm borne from one half of those who voted in America wanting to kick the shit out of the other half? Ultimately, as I write this, the votes break down to 80 million for Biden and 74 million for Trump, making them the number one and number two top vote-grossing candidates in United States history. The number of votes shows the passion of the electorate. We’ve got passion aplenty in America in 2020. What we lack is a culture that coheres, and right now it feels like the 80 million and 74 million wish they could send the other packing.
But all we’ve got is this one country and all of us trapped in it the same way we have been for the past 224 years. In Joe Biden’s victory speech—or whatever we’re supposed to call the remarks he made from Delaware on Saturday night, now that we live in a country where politicians don’t concede elections—he called for an end to this “grim era of demonization.” I, for one, am for this. But can we achieve it? Sometimes I feel like we live in a country that is really one thousand little Marine Corps, each about 150,000 citizens strong, each with its own culture and fierce identity, and each determined to fight it out with those other cultures they view as in opposition to their own.
The idea begins to darken my day. The curation of fierce subcultures is great when they’re used for fighting our nation’s enemies abroad. It’s not so great when trying to cultivate a sense of belonging and community at home. The Marine Corps’s birthday celebration typically includes a formal ball in the evening, with dress uniforms and military bands. The ball follows a set script: the reading of the Commandant’s message to all Marines; the presentation of the birthday cake; the oldest and youngest Marine share a slice of that cake to represent the passing down of traditions through the ages; and then some rousing rendition of the Marine Corps Hymn is played. However, this isn’t the final song on the set list. The final song is, actually, “Auld Lang Syne.”
I won’t be attending a birthday ball this year—no one will. But I’ll likely split a pack of Oreos with my kids after they’ve done their homework and remind them that today is dad’s “other” birthday. However, tonight, as I’m going to bed, I won’t be thinking of the Marine Corps Hymn. I’ll be thinking of “Auld Lang Syne”:
Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and never thought upon;
the flames of love extinguished,
and fully past and gone . . .
This week my two children (ages eight and ten) return to in-person school after not having seen the inside of a classroom since March. The first morning, I walk them to the bus stop. My daughter, the eldest, guides Tuesday by the leash. My son shuffles his feet through piles of raked leaves until I tell him to stop. We arrive fifteen minutes early. Clearly, I’m anxious that they not miss the bus. And clearly, I’m not alone in this anxiety. A half dozen parents have arrived even earlier than me. We all crave a full school day.
My children talk with their friends and then play with Tuesday. When the bus sidles up to the curb, they climb its steps with little more than an over-the-shoulder wave as I call their names to say goodbye. This is how it should be. Tuesday, however, makes a scene. She whimpers and barks and tugs on her leash, desperate not to be left behind, so much so that when bus pulls away, I am holding the dog up to the window so it can see my children. It works, and Tuesday calms down, and the next day the goodbye at the school bus is easier for her, and the day after that is easier still. Normalcy, ever elusive during these past eight months, seems within grasp.
On Friday, the end-of-the-week from school includes a note from the headmaster. He expresses the community’s joy at having the students back, the challenges of the period we are facing, his fervent desire that the school remain open. He also mentions the conflicting “truths” that must be balanced to continue with in-person learning. Something in the deployment of that word “truths” snags with me. And I realize it has been snagging with me for a while now.
There are, of course, certain incontrovertible truths—for instance, two plus two does equal four no matter your lived experience, and the Earth has always been round regardless of historical perspective—although as of July 2017 the Flat Earth Society retains a healthy membership—but it seems these aren’t the truths in question. My children’s headmaster refers to truths as though each is a talent to be placed on a scale when weighing the decision as to whether or not the school should remain open. Fair enough. This is an understandable way to make such a fraught decision in the midst of a pandemic. Certain truths will, inevitably, be placed in competition with each other. On one plate of the scale, we place the truth that significant gaps in in-person education harm children developmentally. On the other we place the truth that in-person schooling could potentially increase the likelihood of community exposure to the virus.
In the marketplace of ideas, truth is currency. However, it is a currency suffering an inflationary crisis. There is simply too much of it. We have lowered the bar of what is true so much that it has recently become acceptable to attach a possessive adjective to the word truth, as in “my truth” or “your truth.” But for something to be true, it must be universal; that is what differentiates mere opinion or emotion from truth. Societally, we’ve embraced this personalized version of truth as though it were an infinite line of credit. Each of us can print all the truth we want . . . until we can’t. Until truth’s value becomes as worthless as any other failed currency.
We have lived in an increasingly subjective reality for some time now, in which truth is a reality constructed by each individual, in which too often we deconstruct old truths for little reason except that it feels good to kick around in the rubble. Biden ran a campaign that appealed to a past time, in which objectivity seemed to reign over subjectivity and in which the old truths had yet to be deconstructed, in which they were like the house we all lived in, not the rubble we all squatted in. Perhaps that is why his campaign slogan has been Build Back Better.
These are, of course, revolutionary times. In such times, claims on truth and its ownership are often made in brash, even reckless ways. This goes back to our nation’s founding. Among the first words ever spoken for us as people, in the Declaration of Independence, were “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal . . .” Our ability to make good on that assertion (to make it true) and our failure to do so at other times (in which we’ve made it false) is as succinct a rendering of our history as I can think of. Our nation is founded on a conflicting truth, similar in form to the conflicting truth my children’s headmaster referenced in his letter to the parents.
As in-person school resumes for my children, coronavirus case rates are spiking across the country. Most parents I know anxiously wonder how many more weeks or even days their children will be able to remain in a classroom. On this particular Tuesday, I have my annual checkup scheduled with Woody Merrell, my internist. Sandy-haired, blue-eyed, and soft-spoken, Woody is as likely to prescribe you a course of antibiotics as he is an obscure herbal remedy. He’s a certified acupuncturist and the bookshelves of his midtown office are littered with Far-Eastern curios.
On a typical checkup, he would breeze in with his white jacket flowing behind him, and we would talk leisurely about my health while he skimmed my medical records. Today, he is more businesslike. He enters the office wearing a protective smock, rubber gloves, an N95 mask and, surprisingly, an eye patch. He asks me questions off a sheet and scribbles down the answers. He reviews my chart, flipping through the pages, never once glancing up at me. I think to ask him about his eye but don’t want to be rude, and I imagine he’s sick of explaining whatever it is that happened, so I don’t say anything about it. Instead, I start talking to him about my children, their school, and what he thinks the prospects are of conditions remaining stable enough for it to remain open.
Now Woody glances up at me. With his mouth and left eye covered there is only his right eye to look into. A single reference point. “In all honesty,” he says, “we just don’t know.”
On the early morning train between New York and Washington, DC, Tuesday sleeps at my feet in her pet carrier. I’m in the Quiet Car and the train is mostly empty, rocking sleepily from side to side as we cross the Hackensack Meadowlands. The low sun is on the water, and on Friday of last week my children’s school closed. A single positive case had exposed no fewer than two dozen faculty to the coronavirus. They say they’ll reopen in two weeks, but I’m skeptical. The day after tomorrow is Thanksgiving, and our table will be small. Since writing last, an ever-widening circle of friends and now family members have tested positive. Mercifully, most are doing okay, or are at least avoiding the hospitals. Throughout this ordeal, it’s the hospitals that I fear, the idea of admitting someone you love into the maw of urgent care only to never see them again. I have never had much religion, but before I put my children to bed each night we always “say our prayers.” This is a sort of thanksgiving. And it is the simplest prayer I know: we say what we’re grateful for.
Often what we’re grateful for is little things, and I encourage my children to pay attention to these little things throughout their day so they might mention them at night. At my feet, Tuesday has begun to snore quite loudly. This is one of those little things, and the man in the seat across from me is looking at her, and even though he’s wearing a mask I can tell he’s smiling at my snoring dog. I’ll make sure to mention this tonight with my kids as we say our prayers. Gratitude provides remarkable protection when your life plans are being upended. It’s like trying to balance while standing on one leg. The way not to fall is to pick a single point on the wall and stare at it. That’s what gratitude is, a single point you focus on so as not to tip over.
Thanksgiving matters most in years like this one. We associate the holiday with the Pilgrims, but it was Lincoln who codified it nationally. In his presidential proclamation, he declared “the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.” This was in 1863, at the height of the Civil War. Hundreds of thousands of Americans had already killed one another. And hundreds of thousands more would soon follow. Lincoln, it seemed, understood intuitively that a national day of gratitude could help center the country, replete with dysfunction, and asked Americans to give thanks “with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience.”
If 1863 was a year in which perverseness and disobedience characterized American life, one could certainly say the same of 2020. At my Thanksgiving table, I’ll be offering gratitude that this year is quickly coming to an end and that another, hopeful year is beginning, with promises of a vaccine to heal us and a new administration in Washington that promises to do the same.
But you never know.
I reach into Tuesday’s carrier and give her a few pets. Then I head to the café car in the middle of the train. It is open but empty. The attendant tells me I’m her third customer of the day. It’s a little before nine in the morning, and she’s been on the train since 4:00 a.m., when it left Boston. I pay, and as she’s wishing me a Happy Thanksgiving, my phone rings. It’s a number I don’t recognized.
“Is Tuesday your dog?”
“She’s gotten loose on the train . . . ”
I hang up the phone, running back through several cars. I’d left Tuesday’s carrier unzipped where I’d been petting her, assuming that she was calm and asleep. She’s escaped, and I imagine her on the loose, unruly and terrified, searching for me. I imagine my fellow passengers, irritated and scowling at me. I imagine the conductor cussing me out, and perhaps even a request that I deboard the train at the next station.
Of course, none of this comes to pass. When I get back to the Quiet Car, everyone is smiling and laughing, and when I apologize all anyone can tell me is that she’s so cute. When I find her, she is sitting all the way at the back, in the lap of the young man who called me and who is scratching her behind the ears, her bubblegum pink tongue wagging contentedly out of the side of her mouth. When he passes Tuesday to me, I fall over myself thanking him.
He smiles and laughs. “She gave us all a little scare, there, didn’t she . . .”