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Tony J Bender

Tony J Bender is a writer from rural Venturia, N.D. He is the publisher of the Ashley (N.D.) Tribune and the Wishek (N.D.) Star. He has written a weekly column, That's Life, for 25 years, which is published by various papers. He has published two novels and three collections of his columns.

TONY J BENDER: That’s Life — Back-To-School Quiz

Hello class, it’s that time of year. The wheat harvest is on, the leaves will be turning soon, and NFL players are beginning to kneel. It’s time for the Tony Bender Back to School Super Brain Quiz.

1. Why won’t Kevin Cramer agree to more debates?

A. Stall Ball always works out so well.

B. How many ways can you say, “I’ll do everything the president tells me”?

C. You just can’t trust Heidi Heitkamp.

D. Busy compiling extensive list of accomplishments but can’t find a Post-It-Note.

2. It wasn’t collusion because:

A. It was obstruction.

B. “Even if it was collusion, and it wasn’t, collusion is protected under some amendment to the Constitution, and if it isn’t, it ought to be because people do it all the time and this is still America — or Russia —something, something … Freedom!”

C. We wanted to Make Adoption Great Again.

D. You’d have to know what you are doing to collude.

3. Something not subject to import duties under current trade policy:

A. Asbestos.

B. Hubris.

C. Moscow Mules.

D. White people.

4. According to a poll, 43 percent of Republicans think the president should be able to:

A. Censor the news

B. Walk on water and chew gum at the same time.

C. Collude.

D. Lock her up.

5. There is considerable opposition from some lawmakers to an anti-corruption measure on the North Dakota ballot because:

A. “This country was founded on corruption!”

B. “We’re already overwhelmed trying to implement medical marijuana.”

C. Ethics are an impediment to efficient governance.

D. Accountability is a well-known gateway to socialism.

6. Why do we need a Space Force?

A. Moot point. The important thing is Mars will pay for it.

B. We gotta fight ’em up there so we don’t have to fight ’em down here.

C. To defend us against Klingons, Cooties and Dingleberries.

D. I don’t know, but look — squirrel!

7. Why is there a measure to prevent noncitizens from voting in North Dakota, despite the fact that it is already illegal?

A. To make it super-duper extra illegal.

B. You can’t have too much redundancy.

C. You can’t have too much redundancy.

D. To rally the paranoid racist vote.

8.  Something you can find in former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort’s closet.

A. Suitcases filled with small unmarked bills.

B. Ostrich carcasses.

C. Implausible explanations.

D. Hillary’s e-mails.

9. What the NRA doesn’t want to talk about:

A. The recent name change to National Russian Association.

B. The little-known fact that Charlton Heston died of an accidental gunshot wound.

C. Their deep-seated dealings of inadequacy.

D. Nietzsche.

10. How to bring the Chinese to their knees:

A. Pay them $130,000.

B. Bring American farmers to their knees.

C. Demand China produce even more MAGA caps.

D. Talk tough.

BONUS: A question Rudy Giuliani doesn’t want Bob Mueller to ask the president:

A. Seriously, what was your real score on the back nine?

B. Do you promise to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help your god?

C. Do Moscow girls make you sing and shout?

D. At long last sir, have you no sense of decency?

Answers: 1. d; 2. b 3. a; 4. c; 5. b; 6. b; 7. d; 8. a; 9. c; 10. a; Bonus: d. And let’s see how you scored: 11-9 correct: Brilliant, but without an I.D., we’re going to have to deport you. 6-8 correct: Well done, Koko, but I thought you were dead. Here’s a banana. 3-5 correct: Dude, Where’s Your Car? 0-2 correct: It’s okay, lots of people get their news from memes.

© Tony Bender, 2018

TONY J BENDER: That’s Life — Robins

Mama Robin built a nest a scant 6 feet from the front door this year. Brave girl, that one, or perhaps just trusting. The azure eggs were visible just below eye level, and India and I watched the progression from broken shells to featherless, famished babies with gaping mouths, as their gaunt, overworked mother retrieved worms and bugs from the lawn. Almost overnight it seemed, the nest grew crowded by the fully feathered fledglings.

“How are you doing?” friends have been asking lately when they see me.

“Well, she’s off to college,” I say. “I’m already walking around in my underwear, peeing with the door open and drinking from the milk carton. Hard telling what it will be like in a month.” Then come the lines I’ve repeated like a lame haiku:

It’s very quiet now …

Just Gus and Me and the Cat …

That’s the way Life goes …

For the first time in a quarter-century, I am alone. I used to be so good at it. Craved solitude. I moved from city to city, from one microphone to another, never looking back, friends and lovers lost in my wake. Then marriage, kids, light, darkness, divorce and then light again.

It’s been just India and me for a few years, now. Plus Gus the Wonder Pug and Squirrel the World’s Grumpiest Cat. They both seem morose. Perhaps I’m just anthropomorphizing. Pugs naturally look sad and that cat … his bellicosity increases with his years. Feline nature or maybe he just wants the litter box changed.

I take Gus for a ride a couple of times a week. This is what I’ve become — a pug chauffeur. I try to scratch his ears more often and tell him he’s a good boy, although he really isn’t all that good — a bit of a maniac, really, barking at everything that moves and some things that don’t.

There are people in the guesthouse, but Gus snoozed through their late arrival, so this morning, he went out to bark at their parked cars. He usually doesn’t miss a thing. He has successfully defended this household from ax murderers disguised as UPS and FedEx drivers as well as suspicious tractors and butterflies with bad intent. And the wind. You can’t trust the wind.

I took up gardening this year, possibly in a subconscious effort to keep occupied. Then again, maybe I just like flowers.

With nearly a score of containers planted, I wavered on planting anything in the window boxes on India’s old playhouse. A friend suggested I plant them for India with her choice of flowers. She chose marigolds because she doesn’t know much about flowers and it was the only thing that came to mind.

Though they started small, they are in full bloom, pungent and vibrant, bursting from the boxes. As I water them and appreciate the blooms, it dawns on me that those marigolds really might be for me. A wise friend, indeed.

We text, we talk, we laugh, we sass and pretend it doesn’t ache a little. Sadly, Gus doesn’t really get that somehow that’s “his India” on that FaceTime screen coming through that anemic speaker. But he cocks his head and tries to understand.

“Did you listen to the song?” India asked the other day. I hadn’t. India and Dylan send me music often but I don’t always listen right away. I didn’t realize this one was an original composition — “A Song For Home.” Melancholy and sweet, guitar strings ringing in the key of something, it’s wistful and hopeful, a metaphor for life’s journey.

Was I leaving for you, for the fame and fortune?

Or just to spread my roots and grow …

Can I make a promise on the fastest comet?

I’ll be home before too long …

It’s been three weeks and 1,295 miles ago. When I got home from the airport, after two hours of windshield contemplation, before I faced the echoes inside, I glanced at the robin’s nest. They’d flown.

© Tony Bender, 2018

TONY J BENDER: That’s Life — GOP Needs To Change Mascots

Gov. Doug Burgum joined 30 other governors last week in support of Brett Kavanaugh as the next Supreme Court justice, which is — if you’re a Republican — about as shocking as going to a midsummer tent revival and proclaiming your love for Jesus. Even if you’re only there to pick up sweaty Baptist chicks.

Burgum, Sen. John Hoeven and Senate candidate Kevin Cramer dutifully followed the followers with their endorsements of Kavanaugh. The Party of Trump isn’t exactly overloaded with independent thinkers these days. They all choose the chicken at the Group Think Banquet.

There are just two Mavericks left in this world. One is fading in Arizona; the other believes in Xenu and will be on the big screen again soon in a fighter jet dueling someone other than the Russians.

Despite the fact that Trump’s Supreme Court nominee doesn’t even know how to spell his own name, which according to my sources is spelled M-E-R-R-I-C-K  G-A-R-L-A-N-D, I’m willing to reserve judgment until the confirmation process is actually under way. Wacky, leftist thinking, I know.

I hesitate to toss under the bus every politician who has blindly pledged allegiance to a president so bereft of ethics. For one thing, there aren’t enough buses. For another, it’s difficult to lift the spineless. It’s like trying to throw soup.

I do have empathy for Republicans in this obvious hostage situation, however. How pathetic to live in fear of something called a tweet. It ranks up there with althaiophobia — the fear of marshmallows. It’s a real thing but probably not covered under any Republican health care proposal.

Most Republicans remained silent as their very stable genius sold out the American intelligence community and the Department of Justice in Helsinki, and it is obvious that his campaign at the very least attempted to collude with Russia. (The NRA sure did.) They’ve ignored payoffs to porn stars. They’ve accepted lies that fall from his lips faster than North Dakota hail stones. They’ve denied that Trump’s trade war has anything to do with soybeans being at a 10-year-low, but if there’s no self-induced crisis, why champion a $12 billion bailout? We don’t want to be drama queens. I guess subsidies are fine as long as they aren’t for something as frivolous as health care.

Higher steel costs are killing manufacturers. Will they get handouts, too? Newsprint, imported from our mortal enemy, Canada, is up 30 to 40 percent and has newspapers reeling, but you know we’re not getting a bail out. We couldn’t pass the mandatory drug test, anyway. The good news is, less fake news. There’s more than one way to skin a First Amendment.

While everyone was cheering a solid 4.1 bump in GDP and good second quarter employment numbers, few were discussing the looming $1 trillion deficit and a national debt that has quickly ballooned to $21 trillion. After priming a pump that was already pumping, the prerecession tax cut has given us a 75-year-low in corporate tax receipts as a share of the economy. When reality hits the fan, you can expect Republicans to point the finger of blame for their fiscal malfeasance at Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security beneficiaries. Why don’t you old sick people get a job?

Yes, there are still a few (silent) conservatives who still care about American families. Trumpians call them RINOS. But at some point, Patty Hearst stopped being a hostage and became an accomplice. What is the going rate for one’s soul these days? In Bismarck, it’s chicken wings and a beer.

The Democratic Party is not particularly focused or always coherent these days, but every lasting benefit working families and farmers have ever received, from FDR to LBJ, has come from Democrats. Look it up on the Google. Al Gore invented that, too. And while you’re at it, fact check Benghazi, would you? Spoiler alert: Vince Foster did it.

Perhaps Republicans should change their mascot from an elephant to a cowardly lion or possibly a fainting goat. In November, do what Republicans are doing now, look out for your own self interest. Vote for someone who doesn’t slither.

© Tony Bender, 2018

TONY J BENDER: That’s Life — The Inadvertent Surrender

It can happen to the best of us — to the worst of us, even. You say one thing, but you meant something completely different. Like that time Churchill meant, “We shall always surrender!”

President Trump, fresh off of his triumphant Surrender Summit in Helsinki, says what he meant to say when asked whether Russia had undermined the 2016 election was, “I don’t see why they wouldn’t have.” Instead of ‘would have.’ Uh, OK.

In an unrelated story, the president issued an executive order dictating the American flag shall henceforth be a white pillowcase and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue has been renamed Trotsky Square. Also, in an renewed effort toward inclusivity, now when you call the White House, you’ll hear, “Press 3 to hear this message in Russian. Press 4 if you’re Muslim, and wait right there.”

There’s a lot of speculation the reason the president rolled over on the stage, belly up and paws in the air in the international signal for submission, is because he is deep in debt to unsavory Russians. Or that Putin has some interesting video in his possession. Ridiculous, I say! Why, all it would take is just one look at the president’s tax returns … aww, never mind. But trust him when he says he really is a thousandaire — the bigly richest thousandaire ever in the history of richedness. Everyone knows money equals decency.

And, seriously, is it possible there is anything on tape that could embarrass this guy? I think nyet. Possibly, a ménage à trois with Boris and Natasha. Or Moose and Squirrel. Maybe all of them together — what is that? A ménage à quint? I need to check my Kama Sutra.

Meanwhile, as criticism raged from people who will look for any piddly excuse to hate Trump, all Real Patriotic Americans stood behind the president and his courageous surrender to Russia. After several days of stunned silence, right-wing spin doctors offered explanations. Turns out it’s actually a brilliant long-game strategy, originally devised by Robert E. Lee, whose surrender at Appomattox was really a ploy to lull the Union into a false sense of security. It’s working brilliantly. Who among us does not feel lulled?

When you think about it, Russia should get a medal for saving us from Hillary. And, really, what’s one surrender compared to our recent victory over the real enemy, NATO? Besides, we have serious problems in America. NFL players might kneel again.

The important takeaway is sometimes people misquote themselves. And just because the president doesn’t mean what he says, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t believe him.

It’s common for newspapers to run corrections after they say one fake thing but meant another fake thing. In that spirit of accountability, here are excerpts from The Definitive Collection of Things They Meant to Say:

  • “Make Russia Great Again.” — Donald J. Trump
  • “I did have sexual relations with that woman.” — Bill Clinton
  •  “Mr. Gorbachev, don’t tear down this wall!” — Ronald Reagan
  •  “Don’t surrender until you see the whites of their eyes.” — Donald J. Trump
  •  “I Shot the Deputy, but I did not Shoot the Sheriff.” — Bob Marley
  • “I shot a man on Fifth Avenue just to watch him die. When I hear that train a-comin’ I don’t hang my head and cry … because I know the base is with me, through hell or high hell.” — Donald J. Trump
  • “It’s a terrible day in the neighborhood.” — Mr. Rogers
  • “You Can Roller Skate in a Buffalo Herd.” — Roger Miller
  • “It depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ ain’t.”  — Slick Willie
  • “You’re hired!” — Donald J. Trump
  • “I Found What I was Looking For.” — Bono
  • “I’m an unstable genius.”— Donald J. Trump
  • “You Can Always Get What You Want.” — Mick Jagger
  • “Mexico won’t pay for the wall.” — Donald J. Trump
  • “Frankly, my dear, I do give a damn.” — Rhett Butler
  • “Just say yes.” — Nancy Reagan
  • “I meant Merrick Garland.” — Donald J. Trump
  • “Send Lawyers, Guns and Rubles.” — Warren Zevon
  • “A basket of deportables.” — Hillary Rodham Clinton
  • “I love the smell of capitulation in the morning.” — Robert Duvall
  • “You’re going to lose so much, you’re going to get tired of losing.” —Donald J. Trump

© Tony Bender, 2018

TONY J BENDER: That’s Life — R.I.P. Ed Schultz

If he was gonna do it, Ed Schultz should have expired July 4. It would have fit his sense of theater. After all, he was a football All-America quarterback and in many ways reflected America itself — high achiever, pugilistic, self-centered, generous, mercurial, brilliant, reckless and fearless.

It was one of the few times Ed missed his mark. Then again, maybe he was just being his contrarian self. He didn’t need the Fourth of July. Ed was a walking fireworks display.

By now, there have been miles of copy written by former colleagues, competitors, friends and foes. Sometimes they could be one and the same. He was loved. He was reviled. You couldn’t be neutral on Ed Schultz. Switzerland didn’t exist in his world.

An introduction to Ed Schultz should have been delivered like a tornado warning. He burned more bridges than William Tecumseh Sherman. He never burned mine, although in his final few years, the bridge didn’t get used at all, mostly because I was disappointed when he went to work for R-T America, lending undeserved credibility to the state-funded Russian news operation. But then, so did Larry King. I didn’t call Ed because if the subject came up, I’d have to tell him what I thought.

There’s always been skepticism about Ed’s conversion from a capitalist conservative to capitalist progressive. I never doubted it, and if you’ve met Wendy, his wife, who opened his eyes on their first date at the homeless shelter where she volunteered, you’d get it. Wendy helped Ed discover his better angels. I’ve always thought she was one. Ed enjoyed the irony of being married to a psychiatric nurse.

I’m not sure there’s a definitive truth about Ed Schultz. There are only perspectives. One conversation stands out. Ed was talking quietly about the loss of his parents. “Sometimes I feel like an orphan,” he said.

We met nearly two decades ago when as the Chamber president, I invited him to speak at our annual banquet. During his introduction, I presented him with a muzzle and recounted a discussion with the chamber board about the gift. “Funny …” I said. “But who’s going to put it on him?”

Ed roared when I told the story. He and Wendy and I hit it off over beers afterward. Soon, I was guest hosting KFGO’s “News & Views” from a remote studio at the Ashley Tribune.

Shortly after he launched his national radio show, he called with literary agent Al Lowman on the line. There was a book deal in the works, but Ed didn’t want to work with some hot shot New York writer. He wanted me, and unless he got me, there would be no deal. They wanted a manuscript in six weeks. Six weeks! I balked, which drove Lowman crazy. What was it with these stubborn prairie dwellers? If I remember right, Wendy finally interceded and I signed on.

The way Ed told it was, “I said to Al, ‘You think the best radio talker in the country comes from North Dakota, right? Why can’t the best writer come from North Dakota?’” I’d like to believe this is one time Ed wasn’t exaggerating.

When I look back at “Straight Talk From the Heartland,” the first of two books we did together, Ed was prophetic about the direction of the country. He had remarkable political instincts. He’d tell me something I thought was outrageous and impossible, but it would come to pass. I started listening closer.

Suddenly the world is a whole lot less interesting.

Heart problems, they say. I don’t think so.

© Tony Bender, 2018

TONY J BENDER: That’s Life — Big John

Jimmy Dean didn’t write that song about Big John Schlosser. But he should have. And they don’t erect many statues to folks in small towns. But they should. It would take a lot of bronze because John was big.

That’s the thing about small towns, they grow bigger-than-life characters like John. Maybe it’s the air, the soil, the sky … maybe it’s the elbow room that allows a man to stretch out without bumping into something. Maybe the easy pace has something to do with it. All I know is Big John will be remembered for as long as things are worth remembering.

I can see him now sitting on a bar stool at the Ponderosa Bar in Frederick, S.D., population, just enough. Not that John was a bar fly. He wasn’t. But the Ponderosa was like Frederick Day Care. I played pool there as a fourth-grader. For 50 cents, you could stuff the pockets with bar rags and play all day. The Ponderosa’s gone, too.

I remember him on that stool at the end of the bar right next to the jukebox. Maybe it was 20 years ago. Maybe 25. Why do I hold that particular vision to the fore? There are others to be sure, but I wonder if our eyes are wiser than we are, cataloging people and things we must remember. Things that we don’t realize at the time are fleeting.

Memories are a garden always in bloom.

He had a head the size of a watermelon, long hair, but not hippie hair. Just hair that was always in need of a haircut, and later on, thinning on the top. Maybe 6-3, but he looked taller, and thick with a chest barrels would envy. Imagine Jerry Garcia, only bigger, and with his fingers intact.

He had this way of looking at you over his glasses, which insisted on slipping down his nose like a kid on a playground slide. I thought about that look when I got the news today — the look of a mischievous professor with a beloved pupil. Not love, though. Jesus to God, no, we were men and men don’t love, they like. Like.

Anyway, as I sort through it now, I guess what it was, was that John made you feel welcome, that he was glad to see you. And he genuinely was. And if you were his friend, and lots of us were, you got that look.

He was smart. Read science magazines. Thought about things. A philosopher of sorts.

When I’d come back for a visit from more exotic places than Frederick, sometimes arriving in the wee hours of the morning, I’d stop at John’s place before I went home. I realize now it was because he was a touchstone. Things changed, people came and went, but John was the constant.

He was usually awake, and if he wasn’t, he’d stir, put on some music and light up a left-handed cigarette. Now, I know his brother, Gare Bare, is going to cringe at this part, but it was no secret. Anyway, it will be legal everywhere soon. John was just ahead of his time.

We gathered not quite a year and a half ago for John’s birthday, but mostly to say goodbye. As I greeted disparate but familiar faces from the past, I didn’t realize then that John was a hub connecting spokes that reached out into a wheel spinning like the Earth in his orbit. We were all connected to one good man.

So what made John worthy of songs and statues? He didn’t cure cancer. Didn’t write the great American novel. Didn’t climb Everest. Didn’t pull children from a burning building. But he would have. No, John was a great friend, and the farther you get down this trail, the more you understand how precious that is.

They don’t build statues in the public square to friends. But they should. It’s OK, we’ll craft monuments in our minds. Mine will be leaning toward me, twinkling eyes peering at me over his glasses, hair askew. And my statue speaks: “Bones!” As if my sobriquet were a celebration.

I loved Big John. Loved.

A while after I’d called my Mom to tell her the news, I walked out into the rain to roll up my car window in a downpour. I think the sky was crying.

© Tony Bender, 2018

TONY J BENDER: That’s Life — And The Winner Is …

There was an election last week and Democracy lost. Just 19.66 percent of eligible North Dakotans voted — 114,340. Meanwhile, the winner, Apathy, recorded 467,301 yawns. The only place with lower turnout was North Korea. Isn’t it obvious now that we need more undocumented immigrants to do the voting Americans just won’t do?

Even more disconcerting was the revelation that there are 54,105 perverts in the state, a.k.a., Republicans, who boldly voted for former GOP secretary of state candidate Will Gardner despite revelations of a past arrest for window peeping at North Dakota State University girls dorms.

On a hunch that Gardner may have carried the college girl demographic, incumbent Al Jaeger, who plans to run in November as an independent (along with many Democrats), immediately began considering ways to impress coeds, so he’s started wearing jorts, has opened a MySpace account and is thinking about a tattoo.

Democratic challenger Josh Boschee, with just 32,865 votes, has a steep hill to climb. For him and fellow Democrats, I have a suggestion — a name change. No, not a change from Democrat to Republican, although there are indications that is what Heidi Heitkamp is trying to do. She’s not running as a Democrat, she’s running as a blonde. It’s a Goldilocks campaign — she’s not too liberal, not too Republican, she’s juuuuuust the right amount of conservative for North Dakota.

Meanwhile, Kevin Cramer got an endorsement from Public Advocate of the United States, which perpetuates more LGBT conspiracy theories than Alex Jones on a three-day coke binge. Apparently, Cramer thought it was a good idea to complete a survey for the group, scoring a 100 percent, thereby winning their undying but strictly platonic heterosexual love.

But back to my name change strategy. All Democratic candidates should change their middle initials to R. Then, they should move the R to the end. For instance, Joshua Boschee R., because as Will Gardener has proven, 68 percent of North Dakotans will vote for anyone with an R behind their name. If a certain company had changed it’s name in North Dakota, Toys Us R would still be in business.

The low voter turnout wasn’t helped by reports of two Black Panthers intimidating people at polling places. Or maybe that was a Fox News rerun. Otherwise, how do we explain the abysmal turnout? It smacks of voter suppression. Almost nowhere was the vote suppressed like it was in Cass County, where all but 13.52 percent of eligible voters were locked up in cages and separated from their parents. Hold it! That’s something else we’re doing in the name of freedom.

Freedom is hard. They’ve set the bar too high. It might take half an hour to vote. On a Tuesday! I don’t know about you, but my Tuesdays are sacred. Don’t even try to make me vote on Hump Day.

Voting is oppression at its worst. First you have to do intense homework on policy issues by watching 30-second ads featuring Heitkamp overhauling a diesel engine with just a crescent wrench, and a nonplussed Cramer looking like he’ll have to eat quiche on Fear Factor. Then, you have to blacken all those little ovals and risk carpel tunnel syndrome. It’s brutal.

We need to modernize. We should run our elections through Facebook like the Russians do or use telepathy like the North Koreans. They know exactly how you want to vote. The way it is now, democracy is a big time-waster. How will we ever find the time to complain about government if we’re too busy exercising our constitutional duty to vote? We’ve got better things to do. Something’s gotta give.

© Tony Bender, 2018

TONY J BENDER: That’s Life — Travels With Tony

Our first Uber driver was a former journalist, so the midnight conversation from Pittsburgh International Airport turned to the unprecedented attacks on the press by the president.

Wearied by weather delays, airport sprints and the uncertainty of our travels, India and I were content to let him deliver a treatise I knew by rote — the preposterous notion journalists intentionally get things wrong … the differences between the opinion page and the front page … the top secret cabal that keeps conservatives out of journalism school … the incurious nature of sheep and men …

We counted 11 Uber drivers, a microcosm of America, as part of our four-day trek around Pennsylvania and West Virginia, where India will attend West Virgina University in the fall.

There was beautiful Chinita with the splendid braids, who was recovering from a car accident and was driving because she could no longer handle physical labor … there were college students picking up money for tuition … and Russell, a West Virginia lifer whose Uber profile said he was a great conversationalist but wasn’t.

A former FBI agent from D.C. shared his insights into the bureau as he ferried us across Morgantown. Comey had botched things by skewing the trajectory of the election with the Hillary email announcement, he said. And the two fired agents who displayed unprofessional disdain for Trump? “They had it coming.”

I had one question. “Is Bob Mueller a straight shooter?” He looked over at me intensely as the light changed. “Absolutely. Incorruptible.”

My favorite was the retired ballerina, who had danced professionally for 21 years in the company of luminaries like Baryshnikov and Nureyev and now taught other dancers. She was tiny and lithe, blonde-gray hair in a ballerina’s bun, lively eyes, with a boisterous laugh I was delighted to coax out of her several times with prairie wisecracks.

Later, I wondered why she was driving. Boredom? Financial necessity? If so the latter, it wouldn’t surprise me. Art is so seldom justly rewarded — this wondrous thing that illuminates the very best in humanity, showing our species in full bloom, like tulips in the spring, providing hope, beauty, inspiration, perspective, truth and mystery. I wished I had seen her dance.

Jahm from Uzbekistan and I engaged in discourse about Russian history, from the Mongols to the Romanovs. A gold tooth flashed when he spoke from a bearded jaw. I mined the words from his rich accent like gemstones. That ride wasn’t long enough.

The longest ride, but not in miles, was with Thomas, a patriot driving a Nissan. Well dressed in a button down shirt and slacks, he was a former coal miner, failed restauranteur and air conditioning specialist who, at 58, couldn’t land another job.

Early in the ride, because we were from North Dakota, I assume, he floated a comment about the unfair treatment Trump was receiving in the press and said something disparaging about Hillary. “Well, I really wasn’t a fan of either candidate,” I said noncommittally, and that shut him down for a while.

But later, another entreaty about the media’s attacks on the president, and this time I took the bait. The president, I said, was acting on some conservative principles I could live with. “But I despair over what he’s doing to the office — the ugliness and divisiveness he encourages. His dishonesty. His intellectual laziness. The way he alienates our allies.”

And so it came, like a flood, the rebuttal. Thomas told me he listened to a lot of conservative talk radio and so seemed well-schooled on the Deep State. Along with his defense of the president, he opined that 9/11 was an inside job, Obama, the Manchurian Candidate, was a Muslim born in Kenya, and that climate change was a hoax.

I attempted to gently amend some of the more egregious misstatements. I cited facts about the death of coral reefs, rising sea levels, melting ice caps, the increased intensity of storms and the acceleration of CO2 in the atmosphere that coincided with the Industrial Revolution — the reality that the growing season in North Dakota had gotten longer in my lifetime.

“Most scientists agree climate change is happening,” I said.

“They’ve been bought off,” he countered.

“All of them? And to what end? Not everything is a conspiracy, Thomas. Read.”

He didn’t read newspapers. It’s all fake news, anyway, he said, repeating the president’s mantra, and then he went off on CNN.

“You’re killing me, Thomas,” I said, and that’s when I revealed my occupation.

“Why would you support attacks on the First Amendment, which is more critical to your freedom than any other part of the Constitution?” I asked.

“Journalists defend your freedom every day, just as soldiers do. You think six-shooters and the Second Amendment will save you from a corrupt government? You know what will? Truth. Facts. They’re out there. You just have to be willing to open your eyes.”

By then, we were at the motel. We pulled the bags out of the trunk and wished each other well. I slapped him on the back and said, “Keep an open mind, Thomas.”

He smiled and chuckled. I liked him. I really did. And I think he liked me.

“I’ll keep an open mind, too,” I added, as I turned away.

I tipped him well. But not as much as the ballerina.

© Tony Bender, 2018

TONY J BENDER: That’s Life — The Heidi-Kevin Show

OK, people, I’m warning you, I took Ambien, so anything could happen. Then again, I might simply nod off.

It would be much worse if you nodded off. Now would be a perfect time for that energy drink, or if you want something less stimulating, crack cocaine.

I now keep my energy drinks in a gun safe because of what is cryptically known as “The Incident,” which took place in 2003, during a birthday party for preschoolers at our house. The best way to describe what happened is to imagine a locked room filled with 19 cats, 14 laying hens, a Roomba and Gary Busey.

Technically, this column has nothing to do with energy drinks or Gary Busey. So why bring it up? A couple of reasons. One, Gary Busey needs the publicity, and two, I am contractually obligated to produce 750 words each week. The good news is, I get paid $100 a word. (This is how you make $800.)

It’s a very strict contract. I don’t really understand it all but according to my agent, it’s intertwined with international trade, geopolitics and veterinary science. All I know is once when I stopped at 500 words, the soybean market plummeted, Russia annexed Crimea and my neighbor’s cat choked on a mouse.

It may be the effects of the Ambien, but it feels like I woke up in Bizarro World today, where Superman is evil, Lex Luthor is the good guy and George Costanza works for the Red Sox.

Last week, we learned that the Koch Brothers, the Darth Vaders of conservative causes, donated to Heidi Heitkamp’s campaign. Yes, that Heidi Heitkamp — the one whose votes in support of Trump policies are insufficiently sincere, according to conservative radio talkers in North Dakota. The same Heidi Heitkamp who may have personally pulled Will Gardner’s pants down and pushed him in front of windows at an North Dakota State University girls dorm.

Why are we still talking about Will Gardner? Because Republicans won’t let it die! This issue is like a vampire. Or more appropriately in this case, Lazarus. It keeps rising from the dead.

On talk radio, we’ve learned that God can forgive anything — peeping, infidelity, lying, violations of the Emoluments Clause, Russian collusion, excessive golfing — anything except gayness and liberalism. We’ve also learned that college girls are seductresses — modern-day sirens shipwrecking otherwise devout Republicans on the rocks of desire. Only one man is immune. Mike Pence. He’s like college girl kryptonite.

Inexplicably, last week, Kevin Cramer joined the Apologist Choir of Holy Holiness, which has been suggesting Gardner was clutching his Catechism while the former GOP secretary of state candidate was leering at coeds, panting like a wiener dog on a hot day.

Personally, I was done talking about this, but now that they brought it up, what drives a man to voyeurism? Energy drinks? A bad Internet connection?

And what drove Cramer to shoot himself in the foot? Was he trying to impress the NRA? Did his left foot cause him to sin? At any rate, it prompted his campaign manager, Pat Finken, doing his best Sarah Huckabee Sanders impression, to issue a statement explaining what Cramer really meant, which was that he didn’t really mean what he said, thereby illustrating that he’s the perfect politician for these perilous times.

Meanwhile, Heidi’s campaign campaign strategy seems to be that she’s Donald Trump’s BFF and almost as good a Republican as Cramer, except she doesn’t support window peepers.

You might think that as a progressive pointing this out, I’ve lost my mind or failed to read the daily top-secret talking points sent to all liberals, but the reality is, in a state in which 11 out of 10 people are expected to vote Republican in November, Heidi is doing exactly what she needs to do, much to the chagrin of unrealistic, idealistic Democrats and insane conservative talk show hosts.

That whole last sentence was an exercise in redundancy. It also made me $6,900. If only Heidi had supported the tax cut.

Cramer, apparently rattled by Heitkamp’s recent photo-ops with Trump and the fact that they Snapchat daily, also further distanced himself from common sense by criticizing Trump’s legislative director. I’m not saying he’s come unglued, but he’s looking as grim as a man drinking unsweetened Kool-Aid. Someone should hide his shoelaces. On the bright side, he didn’t call Ivanka Trump any bad names.

Kevin Cramer is being out-Republican-ed by Heidi Heitkamp, and that ain’t easy.

TONY J BENDER: That’s Life — What Makes America Great

In the interest of differing viewpoints, Bocephus M. Snodgrass is filling in for Tony J Bender this week.



Hey folks, Bocephus M. Snodgrass here. The M stands for ‘Murica, just like me.

You know what makes ‘Murica great? ‘Muricans. I’ll tell you one thing, my great-great-great grandpappy didn’t come here from halfway ’round the world just to have a bunch a immigrants ruin everything for the rest of us.

I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I agree with that NYC lawyer who doesn’t want to be subjected to diversity.

And I suppose you heard what happened in Harvey, Mont.? How those two senoritas were talking Spanish or some other gobbledygook in the convenience store? Tell me, how convenient is it when you can’t understand what folks are sayin’? What if they were plotting to blow up the sheep barn? You know how them Muslins are.

Look, I’m not prejudiced. I like burritos as much as the next guy, but when in Rome, do like the Romans do. Speak American. And then don’t get all lippy with the Border Patrol just because you happened to be born in the U.S. of A. The Border Patrol’s got rights, too, you know.

Every Memorial Day, when I remember how those brave men and women (but mostly men) of the Border Patrol have sacrificed to keep ‘Murica great again, I get a little choked up. I love that 21-gun salute. Because it scares Mexicans. And it keeps the schoolkids on their toes.

Speaking of guns and kids, I’ve had it with all the whining about school shootings. If kids weren’t so busy staring at their cellphones, they’d see the shooters coming. Nobody teaches personal responsibility anymore. You know, had our soldiers been on their phones all the time, we’d have lost in Vietnam.

You know what the real problem is, don’t you? Libtards. They put transgenders in the bathrooms and took Jesus out of the classroom, and he had a pretty good G.P.A., too. I tell you what, you post Jesus or Chuck Norris at the door with an AR-15, and we’ll all feel better. Teachers should be packing heat, too ― the one’s who aren’t Commies, anyway, which come to think of it, would leave us outgunned. For sure, you can’t arm the Spanish teacher.

None of this would have happened if:

A. God didn’t get expelled.

B. Everybody homeschooled.

C. They stopped teaching revisionist history. For instance, the North didn’t win the Civil War. We just ain’t finished, yet.

D. Schools didn’t have so many doors.

E. Everyone would stop being such snowflakes.

F. They taught the Second Commandment in schools: “Thou shalt not take our guns.”

I don’t know what comes after F. I never got a grade lower than that.

People forget what this country was founded on: Guns … Jesus … and Freedom of Speech, except when you’re talking smack about Guns and Jesus. You should read the Consternation of the United States sometime. Maybe you’d learn something.

We have a long way to go, but at least The Precedent has made the NFL great again. He convinced the owners to stand up for America by forcing the players to do the same. Every time a player kneels, an angel weeps. Also when you punt on fourth down with just inches to go.

It all comes down to the principles we hold dear … the freedom to make your employees stand when you want them to, just like the good old days … the freedom to worship the military branch of your choosing … except maybe the Coast Guard. Seriously, Dunkirk had cooler boats.

This is about respecting people in uniform, who sacrificed everything for your right to conform. You know why fighter jets fly over the stadium before game time? Because freedom. Also to keep Colin Kaepernick out. And so Bill Belichick can get pictures of the other team’s game plan.

Players should stand to respect police officers, too, except for black guys who are already on the ground getting tazed because they’ve got a tail light out. Stop resisting.

None of this freedom could be enforced if we didn’t have a strong leader who isn’t afraid to crash your company’s stock price in 280 characters or less. There are two things keeping us free right now ― the NRA and Twitter.

When the president pulls out his Twitter, people wet the bed. That’s power. God Bless America.