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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 — Hurricane Donald

A big wind made landfall last Wednesday in North Dakota, and when I woke up the next morning, North Dakota was great again.

A KX News morning show anchor giddily recounted her excitement about President Trump’s visit and how she and her family had gone out to “show our love for the president.” I was a little surprised her objective report didn’t include the phrase “glorious leader.”

Perhaps I woke up in North Korea. I missed it, did anyone kiss his ring?

Not everyone was happy about the president’s invitation-only visit to a refinery in Mandan. I know I’m part of the Fake News and Liberal Agenda that Rush Limbaugh blames for overhyping Hurricane Irma just to make a point about climate change, but it is a statistical fact 41 percent of North Dakotans don’t support the president.

Eleven percent of them have actually been groped by him. The other 30 percent have been goosed by Limbaugh.

This may explain why folks are increasingly desperate for medical marijuana to get here. “Please help us forget.” Anyway, don’t tell me the president’s not on something. He must be smoking covfefe during those 3 a.m. tweet sessions from the bathroom.

We should legalize covfefe, too, once we figure out what it is. The downside of building The Wall is we’ll no longer have easy access to covfefe pouring across our borders from Mexico. But we’ll have jobs picking tomatoes, if we’re not too busy mining coal, the energy of the future.

Once we get rid of people who are different from us, things will be grand. I think a raid at Norsk Hostfest would be a good start. And, yes, Jethro, we’ll call you for that Google programming gig once we send Ravi back to New Delhi.

And did you hear? A Dickinson company is in the running to build a prototype for The Wall. I hope they’re better at it than the folks in my neck of the woods. Every time I drive to Lehr, there are cows on the road. We need better fences. Or more-obedient cattle.

Naturally, there were protesters and counter-protesters in Mandan. You could tell them apart based on the spelling errors. I don’t think racists should be against “Muslins.” What would they do without sheets?

Noted white supremacist Craig Cobb was there to show his support for the president. David Duke couldn’t make it because he was rallying support to defend statues of Colonel Sanders, Ashley Wilkes, The Dukes of Hazzard and Foghorn Leghorn.

Some of the president’s supporters yelled at Trump protesters to get a job. Silly. Everyone knows liberal protesters work for George Soros. I personally feel he should get more credit as a job creator.

Meanwhile, the Trump supporters were apparently multitasking, working, while supporting the president. That’s the sort of gumption that made America great before Obama made it un-great. To be fair, he did make Kenya great again.

Pretty much everyone was mad about Sen. Heidi Heitkamp riding on Air Force One with President Trump. Liberals already think she’s too far right. Republicans don’t think she has enough deferments to even qualify for high office. Kevin Cramer was especially displeased. Not only did Heidi get the window seat, she made him go to the galley three times for salted almonds. You know how Leftists are when it comes to free stuff. They’re always pulling themselves up by other people’s bootstraps. Then, to top it off, the president actually said nice things about Heidi when he spoke because he wants her to vote for tax breaks for the rich, to help out the poor.

North Dakota is a shining example of giving tax breaks to rich guys. That has taken the pressure from North Dakota property owners, who are more than happy to absorb the cost of tax breaks for Big Oil. Because having too much disposable income can get downright confusing.

I mean where do you invest — Wall Street or Russia? The easy answer is always invest in tax breaks for billionaires.

This time, it’s sure to trickle down. I’ll bet oil typhoon Harold Hamm, who thanks to North Dakota Republicans, could finally afford to fly in from Oklahoma to greet the president, threw dollar bills out the window of his Lear Jet.

Technically, that could result in a $500 fine under stiff new littering penalties passed by Republicans to protect the environment. However, if you spill a few thousand barrels of oil in North Dakota, all you have to do is write, “I was a bad boy,” a 100 times on the blackboard. You have to ease into these things.

I’m not saying we’re easy, but all the light bulbs in Bismarck are being swapped out with red ones. It’ll be purdy at Christmas.

© Tony Bender, 2017

TONY J BENDER: That’s Life — Bully For Billy

If you didn’t like Billy Kretschmar, the fault was not his.

Billy was a fixture in the North Dakota House of Representatives from 1974 to 2016, with one lost election in between, and during that time, most politicians would have developed fierce enemies.

If Billy had them, I don’t know who they are. When I deconstructed his career in a February feature story, I couldn’t find anyone who had a bad thing to say about him. I tried.

I knew Billy almost 20 years before he died Thursday at 83. He’d told a close friend that no Kretschmar man had ever lived to 84. That was Billy, a traditionalist. But the first word that leaps to mind when I think of William Edward Kretschmar is “gentleman.”

Billy had been in poor health in recent months, so we should have been prepared. But I don’t suppose anyone was. I got the news just before I headed out on a road trip. My eyes were a bit blurry for the first stretch. I started searching my memory, wondering if I had ever before shed a tear for any politician. I don’t think so.

Although Billy was a Republican, and I was not, I only took him to task for two votes over the years. One of those discussions caused the normally unflappable Billy Kretschmar to become flapped.

It was a pro-life bill I found ill-conceived. As was his nature, Billy listened — really listened — and, in any other case, he would have gently, respectfully, and concisely explained his reasoning.

This time, he just took the barrage. Finally, he grew exasperated, throwing up his hands, saying, “I’m Catholic!” and walked away. You know, I had to respect that.

As a legislator, Billy was what has become an almost extinct species, a moderate, willing and able to work with members of both parties. His votes were reasoned, not ideological. Billy did what he thought was right, and most of the time, I think he got it right. After sessions, he’d hold court at a Bismarck watering hole with members of both parties, something they called “The Billy Club.”

If anyone ever accumulated more institutional knowledge and history of the North Dakota Legislature, I don’t know who it is. If there was a question about procedure, or if a bill needed background and context, Billy Kretchshmar knew.

Bruce Eckre, a former legislator, said, “The history of the Legislature is not in the history books. They say when a person dies, a whole history book goes with them. In Kretch’s case; it was many books.”

Mostly, I knew Billy as a friend. He was a neighbor, a resident of Venturia, N.D., population 10, so if you consider the mayor and other city officers, most Venturians are politicians. There’s a minister and a bartender, too, because with that percentage of politicians, you need therapy of one kind or another.

Billy, who loved, loved, loved to gamble, was a stalwart member of the Ashley Fantasy Football League, but not a particularly well-prepared one. One recent year, during the draft, as Billy fumbled around, I cracked, “Billy, why don’t you just write me a check now, and let’s get this over with.” In spite of Billy’s unorthodox draft picks, one year he won the league trophy, and that still makes me smile.

One of the charms of life on Main Street in Ashley, is that it’s personal. Fellow merchants still walk through each other’s doors at the end of the month delivering payments personally (and it saves a stamp).

Sure, we use more email these days, but with Billy, you couldn’t do that. At the Legislature, his inbox was ignored, and his computer mostly a paperweight. Yes, he had a cell phone, but it was maddeningly used for outgoing calls only, so you had to catch him in person.

If it was coffee break, you’d find Bily at the cafe with a long table of retirees, gambling to see who picked up the tab. When the cafe, which has been closed until new owners take over, re-opens, I hope they leave Billy’s chair vacant for awhile.

I’m writing this on the day of the eclipse. I could draw some analogy, but I know Billy wouldn’t want that. I will tell you he would have been 84 today.

I have this image of Billy arriving at the pearly gates, humbly, genteel, but with a twinkle in his eye, as he meets St. Peter.

“Double or nothing?” I imagine him saying.

© Tony Bender, 2017

TONY J BENDER: That’s Life — The Politics Of Division

Last week, in Virginia, the birthplace of more presidents than any other, a woman died protesting Nazis, mowed down by a white supremacist in a Dodge Charger. This new president’s reaction was to blame “many sides.”

I blame Obama. And Chrysler Motors.

Seven months into this sideshow (not exactly the phrase I would like to use), when will diehard Trump apologists finally admit electing him was a grievous mistake? But you have to give him some credit. It didn’t take him long to make Nazi Germany great again. Russia’s next.

True to form, “President” Trump passed the buck — unlike Harry S. Truman — saying that hate and division cannot be linked to his presidency because it has “been going on for a long, long time.”

There’s a whisper of the truth there, something with which we’ve come to disassociate with the 45th president. We’ve come a long way from “I cannot tell a lie” to rapt amazement when this one even gets close to the truth. This isn’t horseshoes — although you can lose the popular vote in America by 3 million votes and still claim a mandate. To be fair, those 3 million illegal voters did show up for the Inauguration.

If Trump were Catholic, he’d set records for shortest confession, provided he didn’t first burst into flames at the threshold like Bela Lugosi, because he is incapable of admitting his mistakes. These are more than mistakes; they are the politics of division.

Yet, this president, who has managed to break 11 of the 10 Commandments, is supported by the apocalypse-embracing nut job members of the Christian right, who are so deluded, he could pass gas and they’d call it perfume. Trump could tack Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ to the Rose Garden trellis and some crazies would justify it as fulfillment of biblical prophecy.

I understand their affection for the president. The man speaks in tongues.

While clergy men and women marched against the Steve Bannon-endorsed “Alt Right” ugliness in Charlottesville, most high profile family values Republicans played ostrich. Or chicken. Choose any bird with a small brain that can’t fly.

Charlottesville Mayor Michael Signer nailed it when he said that Trump has emboldened racists. “Look at the campaign he ran,” he said. “Look at the intentional courting both, on the one hand, of all these white supremacists, white nationalist groups like that, anti-Semitic groups. And then look on the other hand, the repeated failure to step up, condemn, denounce, silence … put to bed all those different efforts.”

I have a Jewish friend who thinks I have been unfair in my criticism of Trump. I wonder what he thinks about the emboldenment of Nazism in America. KKK leader David Duke sees the Nazi rally in Virginia as the fulfillment of Trump’s vision for the country.

“We are determined to take our country back,” Duke said. “We are going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump. That’s what we believed in. That’s why we voted for Donald Trump, because he said he’s going to take our country back.”

True, Trump didn’t create the culture of intolerance, but he amplified it. To be fair, the alt-right protesters did show a hint of inclusiveness with the use of tiki torches — a tip of the hat to our first Hawaiian president? Later, they gathered for pineapple pizza.

And from Trump enablers across the country? Silence. Or excuses for a president who encourages police brutality (wink, wink, against people of color). KFYR radio talk show host Scott Hennen (“Defending the values of faith, family and freedom …”) explained on social media that Trump is a street fighter. Good, because judging from his five deferments during the Vietnam War, when he was heroically avoiding STD’s while grabbing crotches with his incredibly small hands, we know he isn’t a jungle fighter.

Tiny fingers come in handy as the leader of the free world — oops, excuse me, I just got the president confused with Angela Merkel — because it’s easier to tweet out nonsensical orders on your smart phone’s minuscule keyboard. Things like banning transgender soldiers from the military because, hey, when sexuality gets ambiguous, how do you know which crotch to grab? Contrast that with the aforementioned Truman, who in 1948, signed an executive order of inclusiveness, desegregating and abolishing racial discrimination in our armed forces.

Of course, Truman was the only president to order the use of atomic weapons, and the debate rages on about the necessity of that decision, but is there anyone who wouldn’t rather have Give ‘Em Hell Harry in the White House right now? Even dead at the age of 133, he’d make better decisions. Instead, we have President Golf Cart trading barbs with the equally insecure Kim Jong-Un, possibly the only leader with a worse haircut.

But the stock market is doing great! I’m loading my portfolio with Ambien and alcohol because heaven knows it’s getting harder for Americans to sleep at night. (I’m still tossing and turning over Hillary’s e-mails.) I’m also taking a flyer on Aqua Net and Elmer’s Glue stock because that has to be what holds Trump’s hair in place when the wind blows unimpeded through his ears.

Until next week, duck and cover.

© Tony Bender, 2017

TONY J BENDER: That’s Life — Family Reunion Memories

I’m not so sure about this whole family reunion deal.

For one thing, it’s kind of a voluntary admission that I’m related to these people. That’s borderline masochism. And I was raised Lutheran.

Sure, I’ll take one for the team and show up for the funeral if one of the Benders tips over. There’s actually a perverse sense of relief that at least Aunt Hilda won’t be around anymore to bring up those ignominious moments from my past life as a moron. Oh, I’m still capable of embarrassing myself, it’s just that most of the time nowadays, I lack the energy.

I understand why some of the Benders wanted to negotiate the $15 cover charge for the reunion last Saturday. For starters, it proves they’re authentic Benders. I like to drop dollar bills around the oldest Benders at reunions because it amuses me to see if they can bend enough to pick them up, or if they’ll end up doing some kind of geriatric somersault onto the lawn.

And I agree, $15 does seem like a lot to pay to have your name dragged through the mud.

Oh, how they love to tell stories.

It’s not surprising the only open space at the table was across from my second cousin, Rodney, who waves at me every day when I drive by and throw beer cans onto his lawn. Well, it’s not a wave so much as a salute. Because I drink American beer, I think, and he’s a patriot. (Pabst Blue Ribbon, if you’re wondering, and I have a birthday coming up.)

As I sat there listening to him complain about getting free aluminum, I wondered to myself why we had to drive an hour and a half to Aberdeen to be reunited.

Rodney’s mom, Marlene, was there, so it was just a matter of time before the topic of frogs came up. Marlene’s still sore about the time she agreed to take Rodney and me to Lake Hoskins and, without her knowledge, we stashed a bunch of frogs in her car. You know, a lot of people are worked up these days about texting behind the wheel, but if you want to see some distracted driving, turn a dozen frogs loose under Marlene Meidinger’s brake pedal.

After weaving home like she’d been doing tequila shooters, Marline demanded we catch all the frogs. You wouldn’t think there would be that many places for a frog to hide in a 1967 Pontiac. We presented her with seven and swore that was all of them. Mostly. Kinda. If you’re rounding up.

No one has ever introduced a bill in the Legislature banning distracted frog driving, but that doesn’t mean you should try it. For one thing, it kills your trade-in value. I would like to add, “Let it go Marlene. It’s been 50 years.”

To change the subject, Rodney started talking about how we would catch his grandfather’s chickens, tuck their heads under their wings, and rock them to sleep. Chickens are not very bright. I don’t care how Darwin and his evolution thing works out, after mankind has gone extinct, there is no way chickens will ever rule the Earth. My money is on kangaroos.

The goal was to get the whole flock sleeping at the same time but, inevitably, just as we were down to the last few, the first one would wake up squawking (from a bad dream about Colonel Sanders?) and then it was nothing but dust and feathers.

Rodney then told everyone how we used to take his Grandpa’s .22 to see how close we could get to the chickens’ feet without actually hitting them. I guess if you hit one, “Hey, dinner.”

Rodney claims we did leave a couple of chickens hopping around on missing toes, but I know I was a better bad shot than that. He may have been embellishing. My clan has been known to do that. You might have noticed.

While I was contemplating what the statute of limitations might be on frogs and chickens, Rodney’s wife, Lucy, jumped in with tales of just how mean Rodney had been to her on the bus in grade school. Since it didn’t involve me, I agreed Rodney had been a wretched child and a terrible influence on me. In fact, if it weren’t for him, I’d probably be in church right now.

Rodney was just awful, Lucy said, with the name-calling and bullying and such. The last thing you want to do is tick off a short little German girl. She got so mad about it, she married him just to get even. Rodney’s been sleeping with one eye open for about 40 years now.

The next reunion is in three years. I’m checking my schedule now. It looks like I’m going to be, uhh, busy. But if I do make it, I’m bringing Marlene a picnic basket full of frogs.

© Tony Bender, 2017

TONY J BENDER: That’s Life — A Case For Conservatism

“Have a happy Fourth of July,” he said.

“Have a good Independence Day,” I responded for the third time that day.

Because we forget forget too easily what Independence Day is about, how the United States of America was born, who we set out to be, and more importantly, who we have become.

We are urged each December to “remember the reason for the season,” which apparently is about crass commercialism and, seriously, why isn’t the Christmas merchandise out? It will be August soon.

As I watched fireworks on the horizon, miles away, mirrored by a lake under a white moon, the booming reports coming long after the showers of airborne sparks, I thought about the promise of America. If Christmas is about more than tinsel, then Independence Day is about more than fireworks.

I contemplated the divisions, the labels that define us today. Simplify, quantify, brand, ostracize, discredit and dehumanize to further an agenda. Liberal, conservative, independent, agnostic — whatever — we place each other in rigid boxes, defining others as if they were one-trick ponies. And yet, our day-to-day experiences are more than that. There’s more holding us together than pulling us apart. If that weren’t true, we would not still be standing after 241 years.

When an ice storm knocked my home out of power for 12 days in minus 15 degree weather some years back, it was my conservative-minded neighbor who was there the first day offering the use of a spare generator.

I have always had many conservative friends, and any one of them would give me the shirt off their back. Liberals would, too, if they weren’t usually topless and barefoot. In my case, public nudity should go not further than my toes. I don’t think we need laws to enforce it — smaller, less intrusive government, and all that — peer pressure should be enough.

Less intrusion. That’s a traditional conservative view that doesn’t align with policing bedrooms or regulating the reproductive systems of half the population. Those are religious dictates. Our constitution grants us freedom of religion and equally important, freedom from religion. If you’re concerned about Sharia Law, then you ought to be equally concerned about those among us using the Bible as a cudgel and justification for laws governing personal decisions.

Sure, I sometimes read the Bible. I also eat shellfish.

Barry Goldwater once said, “Frankly, these people frighten me. Politics and governing demand compromise. But these Christians believe they are acting in the name of God, so they can’t and won’t compromise. I know, I’ve tried to deal with them.” They called him “Mr. Conservative.”

All true conservatives believe government is necessary. You can’t be a constitutionalist if you don’t. “A more perfect union,” by it’s very nature, is government at work. And that Second Amendment thing? Government, astonishingly, providing a check on government — with perimeters — “a well-regulated militia” being the key phrase.

The defining mission of a government or society is to pool resources to do what we cannot accomplish individually. (Interesting, isn’t it, that the word “socialism” is a derivative of the word society, and yet the construct of society is pragmatic, conservative, even, in nature.)

Public roads and bridges increase efficiency. Public education nurtures problem-solvers. Infrastructure and education are about maximizing the potential of all Americans. Everybody wins when everybody wins.

Businesses need efficient shipping corridors. We’ve come to depend upon a fast, stable information highway. Infrastructure is a great equalizer; it fosters healthy competition in a free market, and competition advances innovation and generally enhances our quality of life.

The greatest overseer of new infrastructure in modern times was Dwight Eisenhower, a conservative by any measure.

Without that social cooperation, you have the Law of the Jungle and, if it were such a good system, tigers would rule the world. It’s puzzling that some self-proclaimed conservatives believe in the Law of the Jungle but are puzzled by Darwinism.

Survival of the fittest is a legitimate concept, but we’ve been looking at this myopically. It’s less about individualism and more about the success of the species.

Sixty-five million years ago, some alpha Tyrannosaur may have been drinking Mai Tai’s at Club Rex, but when the climate changed — something to do with greenhouse gasses, I think — he followed the weakest of his species into the abyss. So, when some equate the pollution of our planet with freedom, it’s really mass suicide. Hello, lemmings.

Teddy Roosevelt, a conservative icon, was our greatest conservationist and a man who understood the dangers of monopolies. The words conservation and conservatism have the same roots. How have they become so disassociated?

Richard Nixon, another conservative, created the Environmental Protection Agency at a time when rivers were catching fire in America. He understood that we all live in the same fishbowl and that industry has to be balanced with sound environmentalism.

Imbalance in nature or economics, if you believe in history or science, is unhealthy and leads to collapse.

Today’s economic wedge between the top and the bottom mirrors one of the catalysts to our independence. We traded King George for President Washington and a Congress.

But today, money — “and corporations are people, my friend” — dictates policy at every level. We have a legalized system of bribery that disenfranchises those of more modest means. The best government money can buy. How’s that working out for you?

Although we won independence from royalty (and a state religion), royalty still exists in America in the guise of consolidated wealth. The top 1 percent in America own more wealth than the bottom 90 percent. That’s why the estate tax and progressive taxation help mitigate bloat and stagnation.

Labor and ingenuity should be rewarded and wealth ought not be demonized, but it should be productive, so a higher tax rate that encourages and rewards investment in real job creation is logical and inherently conservative when you look beyond quarterly profits and take responsibility for the well-being of future generations. We boomed under Eisenhower, with a top income tax rate of 90 percent.

Some of you might want to sit down for this: Part of government’s role is redistribution of wealth. Or, you could call it balance, or even sharing, a concept we learn in kindergarten, yet struggle with as adults. We will always argue about how to slice the pie, but let’s at least acknowledge that it should be sliced in the interest of the species. Everybody gets fed.

To quote Bob Marley, “A hungry mob is an angry mob.” Economic imbalance — anything in nature that is top-heavy — eventually wobbles and crashes.

There are some basic foundations of a healthy society and, as a nation, we’ve decided that our government’s role is to defend, feed and educate its citizens and facilitate a sound fiscal policy. The latter is dependent upon wise generational decisions made with regard to the first three.

Society evolves, and it’s increasingly clear that today most Americans believe a baseline of health care should be part of the social contract. We’ve come to question the morality of a system in which the size of one’s pocketbook can make the difference between living and dying, the very morality of for-profit health care. I’m pretty sure no one had to pay a deductible when Jesus healed them.

When the cost of a doctor’s visit is insurmountable — there are kids to feed and mortgages to be met — minor ailments can become chronic. People die.

Affordable health care fosters prevention, and early treatment saves money and lives and increases productivity. That’s a pretty conservative concept — doing more with less. More than 17 percent of America’s gross domestic product is bogged down in health care. In Canada, it’s 11 percent.

Consider this investment — we transition to Medicare for All, which would ease overhead and increase profitability of American businesses. When workers are not tied down to a company health care plan, they become more mobile, more productive and can increase earning power. You know, that bootstraps thing.

Our system is inefficient, and inefficiency is anathema to conservatism. The reality is medical providers up and down the line are gouging, preying on vulnerable Americans.

Only when enough voices are heard will anything change. We have the ballot box (and corrupt, gerrymandered districts) but without responsible, active and informed citizenship and the willingness to engage, we abdicate power. In a democratic society, we all have responsibilities, rich and poor alike. When you look at the people we have elected, it’s impossible to deny that indifferent American citizens have failed themselves. We are frogs in the pot and the burner is on. Wake up, Kermit!

If ignorance is bliss, some Americans these days are positively orgasmic. Dismissing the importance of the Fourth Estate, while acknowledging the often obvious and glaring imperfections of journalists, is astoundingly shortsighted and undemocratic. Journalism is a counterbalance to power. Information is power. Journalists are critical to your freedom and your future.

Two and a half centuries ago, a confluence of enlightened, courageous minds who looked at the world’s greatest superpower and decided, “we can do better.” Today, we look anew at the latest superpower and see our own reflection. We’ve achieved much. But we can do better.

These are the things I thought about as flags flapped in the wind on July 4th, the smoke from grills wafting in the air, the shouts of children on the wind. Boats loaded with revelers passed with sunburns in the making.

It didn’t seem to matter if they thought of themselves as liberals or conservatives, I knew better; We’re all Americans.

© Tony Bender, 2017

TONY J BENDER: That’s Life — Counting Chickens

I’ve been thinking about my dad. It’s been 24 years since he died, so when I think about him these days, it’s not about the way it ended — cancer — but about the way he lived and lives on in the stories I tell my kids. He would have loved them and they him.

India and I went to see Dylan and his band, Strikes Again, play in Bismarck last month, and I immediately recognized the ’70s era blue bowling shirt worn by Garv, the lead guitarist. The back read, “Frederick Equity Exchange,” where my father worked for many years. His name, “Norm”, was sewn in script on the front.

The shirt, passed from Dad to me to Dylan and now to Garv, is too small for Dylan, but he has another one in bumble bee black and yellow that fits. As I stood there listening, I wondered what my father would have thought about his shirt fronting a rock band. I imagine him grinning.

He loved music. When they changed the records in the jukebox at the Ponderosa Bar — you know, the ones that flopped — he’d buy the 45’s for a dime. Thus, I grew up listening to obscure discount recordings, the most memorable being Leapy Lee’s “Little Arrows.” It’s worth the Google.

He played accordion — Dad, I mean; I don’t know about Leapy Lee — and bonded with my sister, Sherry, over Elvis movies on our black-and-white Zenith.

My friends loved him, despite the fact that he won from them just about every bet he placed against the despised Minnesota Vikings. The Vikes were “got damn luck asses” when they beat the spread. He didn’t lose much, but when he did, he was a poor sport.

My sister-in-law, Michelle, and I bet on the Vikings in the playoffs one year and really rubbed it in when they took the lead. “Don’t count your chickens,” my father groused. So with each subsequent score the Vikings racked up in a romp, we clucked gloriously like chickens. Arms flapping, we crowed.

He did not take it well, and in the morning, he was still surly. We met in the kitchen to settle up, and he slammed $10 bills, one at a time, like the worst spanking ever, on the table. If he could have paid in pennies, he would have. It really wasn’t much fun to win that bet. We made not a peep the rest of the weekend.

If he was sore loser, he was a worse dresser, this by design to torture my mother. We’d all get ready to visit relatives, clean and polished, and predictably my father would walk in with frayed work pants and a T-shirt holier than any Sunday.

Once he’d elicited the equally predictable response from Mom, he’d protest feebly — what could possibly be wrong with his attire — and go back up the stairs, grumbling and come back wearing something slightly less atrocious.

One Saturday, before the two of them were headed out to see his folks, Dad emerged in the most horrible thing he could find. Mom took one look and without a word went upstairs and changed into some god-awful pedal pushers, grass-stained tennis shoes that might have had a little toe jutting out and a stretched out, paint-spattered sweatshirt, all in colors that clashed violently. As if Diane von Furstenburg had thrown up.

“You’re not going like that!” he sputtered. She insisted she was, and so he threatened to leave her behind. Tentatively, he walked to the car, glancing backward at the house. She didn’t emerge. He started up the car and waited. Still nothing. He slowly crept away, circled the block as she watched from the window and then finally drove off without her. I’m calling it a draw.

He was a bargain hunter, so the fridge was always full of almost-expired processed meats with day-glow orange and green stickers. Things like head cheese with less than a week left to live. Seriously, how does one tell when head cheese goes bad, and is that even possible? It can only go worse, right?

One night, a Hutterite came into the bar with one last chicken to sell. This was no ordinary chicken. It was from the Steroid Era and was strapped to the man’s pickup like a mule deer. It hadn’t been cleaned, so my father got “a deal.”

Once home, he tossed it in the sink with a thud, crawled into bed and demanded my mother get up to clean it. Like that was going to happen, so he found himself in the kitchen after midnight gutting an ostrich. I think Mom used a chainsaw to cut it up. You could have pole-vaulted with the drumsticks.

That was Dad — fashion rebel, collector of obscure records, poor sport and savior of expiring meats. He was also a pretty fair bowler.

I miss him.

© Tony Bender, 2017

TONY J BENDER: That’s Life — Life Is Gray

I was reminded by an e-mail from a friend that May 31 marked the eighth anniversary of Dr. George Tiller’s assassination. I realized then that it was time for me to finally write about the reality that life is rarely starkly black and white but a palate of grays. 

I still remember the wail I heard from the cell phone as my wife drove from the hospital in Bismarck. “There’s something wrong with the baby!” Those words echo in my head. That wail.

The woman doing the ultrasound — typically performed around 20 weeks — had seen something awful and had abruptly left the room, leaving my wife alone, scared.

The physician returned, and even though two subsequent ultrasounds would reveal how clear-cut the diagnosis was — our baby had half a heart — we were told a second opinion, two weeks out in Fargo, was necessary. Already we had the sense that our obstetrician at that Catholic hospital was running out the clock. That’s how it felt. I don’t know if it was real. Nothing seemed real.

We had 14 days to consider our options, to absorb the pain, with little support or information. Arduous searches on our dial-up connection — this was 18 years ago — offered little hope. An experimental series of operations by a doctor in the Northwest, had minimal success rates. If survival is always success. The process seemed torturous.

By the time the second physician confirmed the condition was “not compatible with life,” our options had been legally restricted by a relentless clock. It felt like a noose was being tightened by a system bowing to politics, indifferent to mercy.

We had terrible options — the desperate series of operations that almost certainly would drag out the inevitable. …  The Fargo hospital had offered to allow our child to die in the delivery room. Small mercies. But would they really stand by and do nothing? We’d lost trust in the medical community. Was it worth the risk to physical and mental health?

I know what I felt. My God, what was my wife feeling?

The doctor made some calls. There were only a few possibilities for an abortion at that stage of the pregnancy. In America. After Roe v. Wade. Only one accepted us, the clinic in Wichita, Kan.

We kissed our young son, Dylan, goodbye, and with the weight of some family members who opposed our decision bearing down on us, drove south to a man Bill O’ Reilly called “Dr. Tiller, the Baby Killer.” When you frame it that way, it’s easy to draw black and white lines. But our world was gray.

The clinic was a fortress. It had withstood a bomb, and Dr. Tiller had already survived five bullets. Even today, abortion providers wear Kevlar vests. In America. Land of the Free. For sure, Home of the Brave.

Each day, the clinic was surrounded by protesters. “There’s still time to save your baby,” they yelled. Oh, were it true.

We had opted for an intact delivery. Over days, using natural methods, labor would be induced. But first, another ultrasound to confirm what we already knew. An injection stilled what there was of our baby’s heart. My wife was under conscious sedation during the process, merciful and logical, I suppose. There’s no turning back.

After our baby was euthanized, she wondered, “When do you suppose they’re going to do it?”

“They already have,” I answered in that motel room. And then I wept.

There were other couples from across America, each carrying their own personal tragedy into a room where we met each day for counseling from Dr. Tiller. Among the refugees was a young lawyer and his wife from Pennsylvania. Their daughter, Olivia, was missing a brain.

It dawns on me that we were clinging to each other like shipwreck victims.

One by one, the women went into labor and then went home to heal. We were the last. Gunnar was stillborn the day before my birthday. Dr. Tiller, who was ordained, performed a baptism as I held the tiny cold body of my son. It was hard to let him go.

As we drove back to our living son, my wife began to emerge from the fog and grapple with her grief. We were at different stages in the process.

The ashes arrived in a small brown package. Dust. We held a small funeral, conducted by an understanding minister, and scattered the ashes at the base of a freshly planted weeping willow, forever known to us as Gunnar’s Tree. My wife framed the tiny ink footprints they gave us and later had them replicated in a tattoo.

Two physician friends told us we had made the right choice. That eased some of the pain, doubt and guilt. Our new obstetrician encouraged us to not give up, and we didn’t. India was born full of life in 2000.

On May 31, 2009, we heard the news. George Tiller had been gunned down while ushering. In church. In America. And I wept.

Our marriage ended last year. I got the footprints and the tree. I tucked the footprints into a drawer months ago. Time to move on, right? Sometimes I look at that splendid tree and don’t associate it with heartbreak. Should I feel bad about that? Another gray area, I suppose. Other times I wonder if I really ever left Kansas.

© Tony Bender, 2017

TONY J BENDER: That’s Life — Rasslin’ And Reportin’

The next help wanted ad we run will go something like this: “JOURNALIST NEEDED: Must have strong language skills, a willingness to ask hard questions and be able to take a punch.”

After Greg Gianforte, U.S. Rep.-elect from Montana,  body-slammed Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs last week, it became clear the trail blazed by Jesse “The Body” Ventura in 1998 had finally come full circle.

The relationship between politicians and journalists has always been adversarial. Few historians will tell you (in the interest of accuracy, I guess) Richard Nixon once gave Carl Bernstein a wedgie. Technically, Nixon may have invented the thong. He also coined the phrase, “Prime the pump.”

I suppose it had to come to this pro-wrestling approach, which I embrace — not because I’m particularly tough but because I look good in tights. This has me thinking about my dream card, featuring notable politicians and members of the media.

Lloyd Omdahl vs. U.S. Sen. John Hoeven

Let’s start the undercard with columnist and former lieutenant governor “Cool Hand” Lloyd Omdahl taking on Sen. John “Ball-Peen Hammer” Hoeven. Lloyd knows karate, kung fu, yoga, yogurt, tia chi, and feng shui. Hoeven can burp the alphabet after three beers.

Despite Hoeven’s youth advantage and the fact he has the best mustache in the Senate, I pick Omdahl to win because I expect Hoeven to instinctively curl up in a fetal position under his desk like he has since November, waiting for this Trump thing to blow over.

It’s like when your crazy Aunt Jane starts singing the wrong song loudly and badly in church. You smile as if to express to your fellow parishioners, “Isn’t she cute?” Or you move to another pew and pretend she’s not with you.

Rob Port vs. U.S. Rep Kevin Cramer

This match pits Rob “The Thesaurus” Port, against Congressman Kevin “Gump” Cramer. Port is the the man behind “The State’s Most Influential Blog’ — influential in the way mosquitoes are when you’re trying to nap in your hammock.

I know they’re bestest friends forever, but this will be good. For one thing, you know in the interview to promote the match, Port is going to use the word “adjudicate” at least 10 times. He thinks it has something to do with the Palestinian problem. If you take a shot of tequila every time he says it, you will need a designated liver. Meanwhile, Cramer has taken half a page from Muhammad Ali. His technique is best described as Dope-A-Dope.

Will there be a violence? Hardly. They’ll come out in the ring, agree climate change is a hoax and trickle-down economics works, then hug and kiss — tongues even — and that is going to totally freak everyone out.

Joel Heitkamp vs. State Sen. Janne Myrdal

This one will be a doozy. KFGO Radio talker Joel “Fake Knees” Heitkamp will have the weight advantage, no matter what the program says. There are more fibs on his driver’s license than in a presidential tweet. I mean, who lies about eye color?

Then there’s Sen. Janne “The Gay Nazi Hunter” Myrdal, who has the distinct height and reach advantage. She can touch heaven from the top rope. I feel bad saying this, as Joel is a friend of mine. But I’m betting Myrdal will smite him in two out of three falls because God is on her side. Joel is such a bad Catholic, he’s almost Lutheran.

The reality is Joel is, at best, only the fourth-toughest Heitkamp in his family, and that’s not even counting cousins. He’s is the only talk show host who should have a full-time cut man. At Thanksgiving, they still make him sit at the card table, and there’s not a darn thing he can do about it. When his sister, Heidi, calls in from the U.S. Senate, his corner doesn’t technically throw in the towel, but they do mercifully cut to a commercial.

One recent interview went something like this:

Joel: “Sen. Heitkamp can you explain your vote on Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch?”

Heidi: “When I see you next, I’m going to pin you down and make you eat bugs.”

Tony “Poison Pen” Bender vs. State Rep. “Raging Bull” Carlson

I’m gonna come clean here. There is no way this match comes off. A lot of that has to do with my cowardice. Carlson, the North Dakota House Majority Leader, is so mean, he’d hit his grandma with a folding chair. And me? I just look good in tights. I want no part of this.

I am doing my very best to get injured in training, so I can save face. I’ve already burned my hand on a cigar and dropped a six-pack on my big toe. It’s probably broken. That imperils my strategy which, in boxing parlance, is to dance. Or if it is in a dark alley, run like hell. The good news is, Al probably ain’t gonna rassle me in any casino he didn’t build.

© Tony Bender, 2017

TONY J BENDER: That’s Life — Make America Great Again Quiz

Just four short months after trading in Kenyan Socialism for Russian Communism with a dollop of South American Style Authoritarianism thrown in for good measure — more bananas, please — it’s time to assess just how super- duper great America has become again.

And you slackers thought you were going to make it to Memorial Day without a test? Dream on.

1. Former N.Y. Congressman Anthony Weiner recently was convicted of texting pictures of:

a. His Anthony.

b. The Washington Monument.

c. The Leaning Tower of Pisa.

d. French Bread.

2. President Trump fired FBI Director James Comey because:

a. Of what he did to Trump’s BFF Hillary.

b. Failed to bring in Bonnie and Clyde.

c. He’s pretty sure Gary Busey can do a better job.

d. Comey doesn’t accept rubles.

3. Former Fox News CEO Roger Ailes died last week  …

a. So a moment of respectful silence please. Long enough.

b. So skirts at Fox News were lowered to half-staff.

c. When his prodigal conscience unexpectedly turned up.

d. Because Rupurt Murdoch won’t stand for a drop in ratings.

4. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer was recently spotted behind the bushes:

a. Retrieving Trump’s errant tee shot.

b. Looking for Waldo.

c. Searching for the rest of the inaugural crowd.

d. Watering the begonias.

5. Accomplishments of the North Dakota Republican Legislative Supermajority:

a. Saved the Senate from denim.

b. Heroically raised your property taxes to save out of state billionaires.

c. Took candy from babies.

d. Roasted the last unicorn for a fundraiser.

6. An irate citizen did this to Congressman Kevin Cramer at a recent town hall meeting:

a. Stuffed money in his collar.

b. Stuffed money in his G-String.

c. Tried to feed him lime Jell-O with grated carrots.

d. Spoke very slowly in short declarative sentences, so he could follow along.

7. Under the proposed Republican health care overhaul:

a. Nursing home residents will spin the bottle to see who gets the oxygen mask.

b. Insurance companies won’t have to use a condom.

c. More leeches.

d. Meet your new surgeon general, Dr. Zhivago.

8. Donald Trump’s favorite president:

a. Himself.

b. Andrew Jackson.

c. Frederick Douglass.

d. Putin.

9. I’m proud to be an American because:

a. At least I know I’m free.

b. At least I know The Rapture will solve everything.

c. At least I ain’t no Muslim.

d. Guns.

10. What N.D. House Majority Leader Al Carlson does when he’s not in the Legislature:

a. Prank calls the governor and asks if his refrigerator is running.

b. Naked goat sacrifices under a full moon.

c. Crochets.

d. He’s Batman.

BONUS. An actual tweet from the president:

a. “Since I’ve been president, not a peep out of West Korea.”

b. “Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?”

c. “Why don’t we prime the pump? Sad!”

d. “Has anyone seen my armada?”

Answers: 1. a; 2. b; 3. b; 4. c; 5. a; 6. d; 7. a; 8. c; 9. b; 10. d; BONUS: b.

Grading: 11-10 correct: Fine. Like the world needed another pointy-headed liberal. 9-8 correct: Salutatorian ain’t a bad thing. 6-7 correct: No problem. We’re grading on a curve. 4-5 correct: Blame it on Fake News. 0-3 correct: Rest easy. You’re still a shoo-in for Trump University.

© Tony Bender, 2017

TONY J BENDER: That’s Life — Kevin Cramer: Arbiter Of Truth

As a member of the Drive-By, Fake News, Pinko, Socialist, Leftist, Apologist, UnAmerican, Blame-America-First, Liberal Media, I have been checking my mailbox for the interrogation letter U.S. Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., sent out the other day to suspected enemies of the state — you know, ABC, CBS and NBC. He is concerned about the liberal slant of facts.

Kevin, he’s a stickler for truth, justice and the American Way. He can leap tall tales in a single bound. It’s nice to see the congressman managed to fit some censorship in between the arduous task of defending Sean Spicer and Hitler. As I understand it, on Cramer’s Scale of Evil, Hitler is No. 3 and Assad No. 2, with The Media being The Evilest at No. 1. Cue “We Are the Champions.”

Don’t get me wrong, Cramer is all about freedom of information — as long as it means freedom to peruse your personal Internet search history. Technically, it may not have been free. He’s received $71,750 from the communications industry. Sen. John Hoeven received $28,500, but he has not come out in support of Hitler, which makes it a better-than-average day for North Dakotans.

Cramer, like most Republicans these days, is anti-regulation. But while he wants to dispense with FCC privacy rules, he thinks they ought to keep a close eye on journalists saying anti-Republican stuff — which is the same as saying anti-American stuff.

It’s sad when the Russians are more supportive of President Trump than the liberal media. Clearly, the right thing to do is investigate the real Commies — journalists. Grab ’em right by the AP Stylebook. Roll over Edward R. Murrow and tell Tchaikovsky the news.

I’m feeling left out. Am I not liberal enough to get a letter? Where the heck is my Che Guevara T-shirt? Do I have to start driving a Prius?

Tragically, the only thing in my mailbox today was a letter from Blue Cross denying a claim, along with a premium increase. Also, a special offer from an optometrist. I find the fine print to be psychological warfare. Like when Beltone calls and whispers into the phone.

There are reports even Fox News got a letter from Cramer. But who knows for sure? The only sources I trust are Facebook, Twitter, and Strawberry Meidinger.

Fox getting a complaint about liberal bias is a little like putting a cop in the lineup, as witnesses try to identify the chainsaw killer. It’s about, umm, the appearance of fairness, which of course, nobody really wants — which is why the cop is in uniform.

Meanwhile, the chainsaw killers at Fox are far too busy these days fending off lawsuits and chasing female members of their “All Aryan, All the Time” staff to craft any meaningful reply to any letter other than, “Delivery of this $14 million check does not imply guilt or indicate wrongdoing on the part of any employee of Fox News.” We pay. You decide. To keep quiet. And by the way, nice butt.

If you visit Fox News on any given day, it will look like an adaptation of “Dead Poets Society.” But I’ll warn you that while you’re on top of the desk — swatting at gropers clawing at your ankles — saying, “Captain, my captain,” it only encourages Bill O’Reilly. You’d have to go to an airport to get felt up like that. At least there, they drag you off the plane and not into a broom closet.

You family-values conservatives in shock over this must have missed the memo on O’Reilly’s last sexual harassment case involving dirty talk about a loofa sponge. Nice going, Sponge Bill No Pants. All I’ll say is if O’Reilly and Roger Ailes ever get the hots for one another, everyone is going to forget about Barry Manilow.

Where were we? I struggle with focus and retention. Something to do with the ’70s. Or the ’80s. One of those. Possibly both. All I’ll say is I supported Measure No. 5. Or NBo. 6. Whatever it was. Look, a squirrel!

I remember … I was praising Kevin Cramer. I fully support his effort to rein in journalists and their pesky facts.

I would like to add, “I’m proud to be an American, where (at least) I know I’m free.” America is so bigly great again.

© Tony Bender, 2017