Published by

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 — Things That Puzzle Me

Admittedly, I’m easily puzzled.

Therefore, I ought to be able to come up with a column on that topic. Even if I’m trying to write next to a guy noshing airport sushi while I’m waiting for a flight back to North Dakota.

The first thing that puzzles me is why I’m leaving Los Angeles this soon, knowing full well I’m flying back into the teeth of a northern Plains autumn —  which in the perspective of Californians is Antartica in the dead of winter. They think we raise penguins. We should consider it. The pheasant count is down.

Had the Dodgers actually won Game 7 of the World Serious, I might have been tempted to stick around, so I could help tip over cop cars on Rodeo Drive.

After my visit, I’m also thinking about investing in Dow Chemical. Facts I made up show that a full 20 percent of your average Californian’s body mass is silicone. The balance is a combination of botox, Perrier and arugula. The only other place that has bigger boobs and more fake smiles is Washington, D.C.

I kid. As eclectic as California is, it’s a sane asylum compared to the rest of the world. I did check the news while I was gone and that led to a good deal of confusion.

Like why Donald Trump Jr. had to drag his daughter, Chloe, into a discussion about economics. All the kid really wanted to do was to go trick-or-treating on Halloween in her Marie Antoinette costume.

When you’re a Trump kid, it’s complicated enough. You end up with things like Krugerrands, Faberge eggs, caviar, covfefe and truffles in your Gucci bag — a serious bummer when you’re 3.

On the bright side, at least she isn’t saddled with having some weird name ending in “-vana” or “-vanka.” Unless her full name is Chlovanka, which sounds like a trendy social disease. Or the perfect place for a nuclear accident. Or a country bordering Nambia.

Inexplicably, her father used Halloween as an opportunity to disparage liberal kids who aren’t working hard enough. “I’m going to take half of Chloe’s candy tonight and give it to some kid who sat at home,” he tweeted. “It’s never to [sic] early to teach her about socialism.”

Uhh, I’m not an economist, but isn’t socialism like when you knock on doors and ask for a handout? Some people call it Halloween, others call it tax reform.

Speaking of which, I’m puzzled by the almost patriotic fervor among paycheck-to-paycheck Republicans in the Heartland who support the desperate need to eliminate the estate tax.

It affects just 5,000 millionaires and billionaires a year. I guess this is a minority outreach program. Well, you gotta start somewhere.

I’m puzzled, too, by the contradiction that some economic philosophers in Washington want a new tax “reform” plan that would offer an increased child tax credit, while simultaneously cutting safety net funding that feeds and insures children. How did they decide which one is welfare and which one is not?

The sales pitch on this tax plan is that it’s about job creation. But isn’t unemployment already at a 17-year low, at 4.1 percent? The only people not working are liberal children who are too lazy to even ask for a mini-Snickers bar at the neighbor’s house.

If we create any more jobs, everyone will have to start working two jobs. Hold it. I think that’s already a thing. Anyway, as a liberal slacker, I don’t want another job. My plan if things get tough? Go Fund Me.

Ultimately, I just don’t think I’m ready for America to be too great too soon. Maybe we ought to just ease into it — you know, do a little economic foreplay. I’ll leave it to you to continue the analogy.

Every tax cut from Kennedy to Reagan to Bush II has added to the deficit, but this time they say it’s going to work. Absolutely. No doubt. Pinky promise.

Even though Wall Street is roaring, I guess we need even more stimulus.

Personally, I’m worried. What’s this much stimulus going to do to Mike Pence? He may start calling his wife “Baby” instead of “Mother.” The good news is he probably won’t have to arrange conjugal visits through Bob Mueller.

Equally puzzling to me about this rush to tax “reform” are the Tea Party congressmen who were against deficits under Obama. Most have apparently signed on for $1.5 trillion added to the national debt. We could rename it the T.P. Party because that’s what you need when you’re so full of … of … tax reform, I guess.

My guess is the tax cut for the rich will just add to the debt. In a few years, Republicans will start wringing their hands and blaming the working poor on food stamps, who just aren’t Halloweening hard enough.

Maybe I’m too skeptical. Perhaps a few days in California has addled my once sound judgment.

I bet someone put something in my wine spritzer.

© Tony Bender, 2017

TONY J BENDER: That’s Life — Potpourri

One of Us

The other day, I ran into a friend who wondered why I couldn’t get with the program, like the rest of the Republicans in my neck of the woods.

I explained I’m not really anti-Republican, I am pro-common sense. Since these days we are entitled to our own facts, along with entire networks to support them, please allow me my delusion.

Continuing with said delusion, I told my friend I actually appreciated real conservatives, like William F. Buckley and Barry Goldwater, both of whom are spinning in their graves so fast these days, you could use them for horizontal drilling.

My friend told me the reason nine out of 10 voters and four out of five dentists in the state supported Trump is “He’s one of us.” Which is why he wants to roll back the estate tax to save those of us with $5.49 million in the bank. Whew. Close call.

I can appreciate the way some folks are sticking with the president in the same way I appreciated the time my cat got one of those sticky mousetraps pasted to his fur.

Some people have veritable shrines to Trump in their yards, or on the sides of weathered barn buildings.

Me? I have a shrine to Melania in a more discreet location.

Because I don’t think we all have to wear our politics on our sleeves. Let mine remain a mystery to you.

Disavowing Harvey Weinstein

It’s been a good week for conservatives because they finally got a new liberal sleazeball to demonize in Harvey Weinstein.

Bill Clinton has been the standard bearer for quite a while. With occasional appearances by Anthony Weiner, who has the best political perv name of all time. At least, until Peter Dingleberry gets elected.

For quite some time, the party of family values has dominated the scandal category. I’m not saying sleaze doesn’t cut across party lines, it’s just that most liberals are too busy smoking pot, collecting welfare and hugging trees — treesexuals abound in the party — to get elected to anything. When Diane Feinstein, at 84 and running for office again, is one of the fresh faces of the Democratic Party, well, need I say more?

Conservative pundits have been licking their chops and are demanding liberals publicly disavow Weinstein. Taking bold leadership on the issue was President Trump, who said, “I’ve known Harvey Weinstein for a long time. I’m not at all surprised to see it.”

And now, a moment of silence for Irony, who died in that very moment. She is survived by two sisters, Hypocrisy and Obliviousness. Officiating at the service will be Congressman Tim Murphy.

It’s none of your business

Hypocrisy and Obliviousness were spotted in a meeting last week at the Fargo Public Library, when Govs. Doug Burgum and Mark Dayton, Sen. John Hoeven, Moorhead Mayor Del Rae Williams, Fargo Deputy Mayor Dave Piepkorn and Cass County commissioners Mary Scherlings and Chad Peterson held a closed-door meeting to discuss the $2.2 billion flood diversion project.

That’s $2.2 Billion, with a capital Bill. Your Bill.

North Dakota reporters have been kicked out of so many meetings lately you can identify them by the dusty footprints on their behinds. When EPA administrator Scott Pruitt held a meeting with Hoeven, Kevin Cramer and Burgum to discuss ways to keep oil companies from despoiling the state (Sarcasm is still alive), scribes were asked to leave the meeting.

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been asked to leave a party after an invitation. After two beers, hosts invariably start rethinking things. And they always want the lampshade back.

Burgum, who is reinventing transparency, said about last week’s meeting, “The primary reason (for barring the taxpaying public) is, we want to make sure everybody in the room feels comfortable sharing their concerns.”

I have some concerns of my own. But you know me, I don’t feel comfortable sharing them in such a public forum.

Obviousness, who was not allowed in either, was, however, comfortable expressing her feelings in the hallway outside the door, which was guarded by burly bouncers.

“All I know is clowns and politicians perform better under a spotlight,” she told a fake news reporter, who stood through the interview because his butt was really sore.

“And we still have the First Amendment and Democracy, don’t we,” she continued.

The place went silent.

© Tony Bender, 2017

TONY J BENDER: That’s Life — How Well Do You Know Current Events?

Hey folks, it’s been awhile, and I sense my readers slacking off.

Have you been paying attention to current events? The news has been particularly newsy as of late. Actually, I was holding off writing this since there were rumblings about the apocalypse happening Saturday. Bummer. Now, I have to write a column, and I suppose, pay my bills. OK, pencils sharpened, eyes straight ahead, here we go.

1. Under recent health care legislation, this is considered a pre-existing condition:

(a) Warts.

(b) Heebie jeebies.

(c) Boogers.

(d) Existing.

2. The most unpatriotic thing ever:

(a) Kneeling during the national anthem.

(b) Kneeling when Lee Greenwood sings.

(c) Five deferments.

(d) Buying “Make America Great Again” caps from Russia.

3. A contributing cause to more intense hurricanes:

(a) Gay pride.

(b) Insincere prayers.

(c) Al Gore.

(d) Cow farts.

4. Top Kim Jong-Un nickname:

(a) Rocket Man.

(b) Off His Rocker Man.

(c) Major Tom.

(d) Captain Fantastic.

5. Reasons the world didn’t end Saturday as predicted:

(a) The Almighty is still on the Julian Calendar.

(b) Not prudent without a health care bill in place.

(c) President Trump and Kim Jong-Un both golfing.

(d) Saving it for a Vikings Super Bowl win.

6. Reason President Trump disinvited the Golden State Warriors:

(a) Discovered they weren’t the Golden Showers Warriors.

(b) Hardly any white guys on the team.

(c) Too busy drinking covfefe in Nambia.

(d) He’s already hosted Frederick Douglass.

7. According to Hillary’s new book, she lost because:

(a) Deplorables vote.

(b) Unseemly references to her impeding coronation.

(c) Savvy book marketing strategy.

(d) Accidentally got Thomas A. Dewey’s playbook.

8. How did Miss North Dakota become Miss America?

(a) It’s just a matter of spelling, actually.

(b) Stole the other girls’ signs with an Apple watch.

(c) Never once mentioned lutefisk.

(d) She’s really swell.

9. The only thing scarier than the movie “It”:

(a) The Weather Channel.

(b) Al Carlson.

(c) Twitter at 3 a.m.

(d) Mike Zimmer.

10. Something whiny liberal snowflakes should do:

(a) Get a job.

(b) Get over it.

(c) Grow a pair.

(d) Don’t Bogart that joint.

BONUS QUESTION: A really cool name for a hurricane would be:

(a) Biff.

(b) Dweezil.

(c) Stormy.

(d) Hutch.

Answers: 1. d; 2. c; 3. a; 4. b; 5. a; 6. a; 7. c; 8. d; 9. c; 10. b; BONUS d. Grading 9-11 correct: You’ve clearly been keeping up. You must be a nervous wreck. 6-8 correct: In Nambia, this would be an A+. 3-5 correct: The important thing is you vote. 0-2 correct: Don’t worry, your preconceived notions will serve you well.

© Tony Bender, 2017

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