Chris Cox

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My wife and I do not play chess. A few years ago at a company Christmas party, we were participants in a game of Dirty Santa and came away with a chess set featuring oversized chess pieces that glowed in the dark. I had originally opened a gift I actually wanted — a big coffee mug with a nice bag of gourmet whole bean coffee — but some guy in a hideous Christmas sweater swiped it from me because he drew a better number and preferred my coffee bonanza to the chess set that he opened.

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I did not go to college with Brett Kavanaugh, but I went to college at about the same time he did, and the portrait that has emerged of him over the past couple of weeks is one that I remember pretty clearly. There were plenty of beer-loving, weightlifting, cocky, entitled, belligerent frat boys on lots of college campuses in the early 1980s. 

You would find them preening at the local bars, singing too loudly, invading others’ space, splashing beer on people, daring anyone to complain about it. My friends and I, most of whom were also beer-loving and some of whom could be pretty obnoxious themselves if under the influence of 10 or 12 glasses of Schlitz Malt Liquor Bull, we really, really, REALLY hated those guys. You see, these guys were already all of those things before consuming their first beer. They just used beer like kerosene to inflame these qualities. 

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For many years, I thought of myself as one of Flannery O’Connor’s “Christ-haunted” characters, living my life in a kind of perpetual spiritual limbo, unable to turn my back on religion altogether, equally unable to fully embrace it. I sometimes felt that Christ was chasing me back to church, and Christians were chasing me right back out of it.

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I’ve always been fascinated by storytellers and the stories they tell. As a small child, I loved hearing my parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, or any other willing grown-up tell stories of their childhoods, the experiences they had, the people they knew, and the people they once were. I could listen to these stories for hours, as long as they were willing to tell them.

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Here’s something I never thought I would say: I’m looking for a cat. Not just any cat, but a particular kind of cat, a cat with a particular set of skills. I need the Liam Neeson of cats. An assassin cat. A turbo mouser. A bloodthirsty, feral killer. A razor-thin barn cat that grew up hardscrabble, forced to fight a dozen siblings for a scrap of fish guts — or starve. 

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Some people’s memories of their first car are glazed with sugar, like candy apples at the county fair. It is just one species of nostalgia, I guess. A few of my classmates actually did drive cool cars, including some twins who shared a black Trans Am that was the envy of every teenage boy who had seen Burt Reynolds driving one in “Smoky and the Bandit,” which played for about 80 consecutive weekends at the Twin Oaks drive-in theater.

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EDISTO ISLAND, SC – For us, the magic of Steamboat Landing Road begins where the pavement ends, where the asphalt turns to dirt. From there, it is less than a mile to the landing, but at dusk it seems longer than that when we are on one of our nightly walks, watching the crabs crisscross in front of us as we search for frogs no bigger around than a penny. After it rains, as it often does on sweltering Edisto afternoons, the frogs are plentiful.

Even though our children are teenagers now, they still delight in capturing these frogs — just for a few minutes, anyways, giving them cute little names like Eddie or Gloria and rubbing their tiny pale bellies. Their legs, suspended in the air, are not much bigger than eyelashes.

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Quite a few people have contacted me this week seeking an English translation of President Donald Trump’s recent reflections on Elton John, breaking records, hockey, which people need space and which ones do not, whether the brain is or is not attached to the mouth, and the correct order of importance of different body parts.

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I was only vaguely aware of who Anthony Bourdain was when news of his suicide swept the internet last week. Even though his show “Parts Unknown” had been on the air for the past five years and he had developed quite a devoted following during that time, somehow I had missed out. All I knew was that he was a television personality of some sort and his show had something to do with food. I guess I had foolishly dismissed it as just another of the scores of cooking shows and didn’t bother investigating it further.

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My wife and I are introverts who pretend to be extroverts, both personally and professionally, which means that we are the kind of people who plan a party, and then immediately regret it once the invitations are sent.  

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My daughter has become the person she hoped she would be at age seven. We should all be so lucky.

“When I was seven, I had a vision of my junior year in high school,” she said. “I wanted a car, a boyfriend and a nice dress for the prom.”

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The first time I met Owen Gibby, he immediately reminded me of my favorite television character of all time, Deputy Barney Fife, and as I got to know him, that impression only intensified. They are about the same size and are both prone to exaggerated bug-eyed facial expressions, double takes, and dramatic pauses. I suspect that they learned at a very young age that being the funniest guy in the room has a lot of advantages for smaller guys trying to find their way in the world. Not only is being funny disarming, it turns out to be a better way to meet girls than anybody could have guessed.

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When I was a student at Appalachian State University, I could have made the walk from Anne Belk Library to Sanford Hall in my sleep and often did, or nearly so, on those mornings after a late, coffee-drenched night writing a paper on one of Flannery O’Connor’s short stories, or working through the impossible genealogy of a William Faulkner novel, or racing the sentences of James Joyce toward the dawn.

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It’s one of those late March days that can’t make up its mind whether winter is really over or might hang on for another of weeks. When the sun elbows through a patch of low, gray clouds, it’s warm enough to take off your jacket, but then the wind picks up and you put it back on.

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Last week, a United Airlines flight attendant forced a passenger with a small dog to put the dog in an overhead storage bin during a flight, even though there were no vents for the dog to breathe. The dog did not survive the flight, and in less than a week, legislation was introduced into Congress to prevent such a tragedy from happening again. The bill is called the WOOFF Act — the Welfare Of Our Furry Friends.

When a defenseless puppy dies on an airplane, Congress is almost instantly roused to action. Why then, are our legislators so reluctant to provide the same level of care and concern for our children, when we have already lost so many to gun violence? How many mass shootings will it take before we see some meaningful legislation that could begin to turn the tide and make our schools, theaters, malls, and other public places safer?

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Half the battle is just getting out of the house and on the road. Whenever we travel, we all understand that if we need to leave at 8 a.m., we will pretend that we really have to leave at 7 a.m. so that we can actually lave by 8:45 a.m. 

We set the alarm clock an hour earlier than any sane person would deem necessary, more than enough time to pack the car, eat a nutritious breakfast, run through the checklist of things that need to be turned on and things that need to be turned off, water the plants, leave a note for the house sitter so excruciatingly detailed that it resembles a manuscript, and say ‘goodbyes’ to our pets in a fashion that is so cute and so urgent that they seem confused, and probably alarmed, at what is unfolding here in front of them.

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My grandfather loved guns. He had a magnificent collection, including a dazzling array of pistols, shotguns, and rifles, some very old and exotic. These he kept locked in a gun cabinet that was strictly off limits not just to children, but to anyone. Most days, he wore a pistol strapped to his side just like Wyatt Earp, though his was more likely to be used to shoot a copperhead or water moccasin than some rounder in a saloon.

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“I’m absolutely starving,” my wife says, digging through her purse for something as I walk into the kitchen, clearing my throat to get her attention. “Wow, don’t YOU look nice!”

I do feel pretty spiffy. I am wearing my new brown pants and a striped blue shirt. My belt and my shoes match. My hair is combed and sprayed, though it is really not so much “hair” as the suggestion of hair, a few brave and resilient strands that remind me on darker days of crabgrass growing in the crack of a sidewalk. She finds this preferable to the way I used to wear my hair, which is not at all — in those lonely days before she came into my life, I shaved my head, fancying that I looked more like Yul Brynner or Mister Clean than Uncle Fester.

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Imagine, just for a moment, that it is 2010 again. The economy, which was on the verge of a catastrophic collapse just over a year ago, has pulled out of its nosedive and is now showing some tentative signs of recovery. President Obama, the first year of his administration now in the books, is beginning to find his stride and looking forward to a new year.

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From the time I was about 10 years old, I have been a rabid sports fan. In the beginning, I chose my allegiances whimsically. I liked the Cowboys because they had stars on their helmets and were called “America’s Team” and I lived in America, and because I liked Coach Tom Landry’s fedora. I chose to pull for the Lakers because they had an actual giant on their team, a man named Wilt Chamberlain who wore a cool bright yellow headband. And I picked the Dodgers because my dad liked them and I wanted to be like him or least have something in common with him.

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Except for the year our daughter, Kayden, got the flu and we had to make the best of spending Christmas at home with one of our youngsters battling a fever of 102, our kids are accustomed to hitting the road pretty early on Christmas Day. Ordinarily, they have no more than a couple of hours to marvel over their presents from Santa before they have to strap in and nestle in the backseat of the car for a long winter’s nap of three hours or so, about the time in takes to get to my hometown of Sparta.

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Many years from now, Americans are going to look back on the election of the 45th President Donald J. Trump with a mixture of fascination and horror. I think 2016 will be remembered as the year that the Democrats found a way to lose an election that nobody thought they could lose, and the Republicans nominated a man that nobody thought could win, a man who had only one point of intersection with the party — the celebration of centralized wealth.

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The day of my stepfather’s celebration of life service was a brisk, sunny Saturday morning, as good a day as any to celebrate life. We got up before daylight, made coffee, put on our nice clothes, packed the car, and hit the road for the three-hour drive up to Sparta, where we would meet the rest of the family before all the people started showing up to hug us or shake our hands as we stood in a long line to greet them.

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The list of allegations is dizzying and depressing. Every day, it seems, there are new reports of predatory behavior by someone famous, maybe someone you have admired. For me, it was Kevin Spacey and Louis C.K., both accused of horrendous acts of sexual harassment and/or assault. Both of these men — once beloved and held in the highest regard among lovers of film and television — have confessed and are now suddenly pariahs, having been fired from their various projects and awaiting whatever legal repercussions may obtain.

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The first time I met my stepfather I threatened to beat him up. My brother and I were both in on it. I was looking for reasons not to like him, and as most people know, when ye seek, ye shall find.

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There are very few decent photographs of me as a child. When I die, I feel sorry for the poor souls tasked with putting together the obligatory retrospective of my life told in a series of adorable old Polaroids and poignant family photos set to music, probably “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”

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We were pretty full of ourselves, I guess. Barely 19, barely finished with our freshman year in college, having left our provincial little town behind for the urban chaos and the infinite possibilities of university life just over a year ago. Now here we were again, back in town for the summer. We knew we were going back to school soon enough, so we wanted to cram every bit of experience and drunken camaraderie into those last few weeks together before packing up our junk, moving back into the dorm, settling on a major, and getting serious about the future after a few false starts and narrow escapes during our freshman year.

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The treehouse that we had built in our backyard when we bought our house eight years ago sits vacant on a breezy September afternoon, the last day of summer, just as it has for the past eight years. For reasons I may never fully understand, the kids rejected it like a body sometimes rejects an organ, so it just sits there, year after year, collecting spiders and the intricate architecture of their silk-spun homes.

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As President Trump’s administration continues to descend further into chaos with each passing week, there are a few truths that we will have to reckon with when it comes to an end, whether that occurs in a few years, a few months or a few weeks. The biggest of these is also the most obvious: we are a nation divided. Though polls show that Trump’s support is dwindling slightly, there remains a solid core of Trump voters who still support him and believe that his problems are essentially the fault of the media and of sore-loser liberals, who in their view refused to accept the legitimacy of his presidency and are thus undermining any chance he has of being productive or successful.

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I can admit now that by the time the day of the eclipse finally arrived, I was so tired of the hype that I just wanted it to be over. For months and months, the eclipse has been written about, talked about, planned for, and so eagerly anticipated by so many people that I was just weary of hearing about it. I was even mildly and irrationally irritated that classes would be canceled and traffic here in “the path of totality “— a phrase that could have served as the title of one of those dreadful post-Roger Waters Pink Floyd albums — would be miserable.

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When I was just about the same age my son is now, my dad took me to Atlanta to see the Atlanta Braves take on our favorite team, the Los Angeles Dodgers. I wore my blue plastic Dodgers batting cap and was thrilled not only to see the players I knew from television and newspaper box scores in person, but to be there with my dad to see my first Major League baseball game in person.

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Edisto Beach, South Carolina – I will never forget the pictures. The day after Hurricane Matthew plowed through — and plowed up — Edisto Beach last October, I found a series of photographs someone had taken of the devastation along Palmetto Boulevard, which was no longer visible underneath a deep layer of sand and debris. Beachfront decks had been reduced to heaping mounds of kindling, street signs snapped like match sticks slanting this way and that, the twisted and jagged remains of patio furniture and wind-blasted beach umbrellas resembling giant, metallic insects, various and sundry decorations that had once adorned quaintly-appointed residences, now strewn haphazardly across the landscape like toys in a child’s playroom.

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Half a year into his presidency, it seems pretty clear that Donald Trump would rather continue campaigning — or golfing, or both — than actually governing the country. Who can blame him? It is so much easier and more gratifying to stir up the troops with snide remarks about Hillary Clinton or the free press and to make exciting promises about reforming health care and lowering taxes than it is to confront a fundamental truth: the Republican party has had years to consider, craft, and deliver a health care plan that would supplant the much maligned Affordable Care Act, and the best they could do was offer a plan that guts Medicaid to the tune of $830 billion to fund a huge tax cut for the wealthy, while leaving millions Americans without any health care at all. Brilliant.

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It’s a Saturday night in Sparta, and the three sisters — all of them widows — are heading off to church in Cherry Lane for a singing. The kids and I just rolled into town for a family reunion on my mother’s side, but that’s not until Sunday afternoon, which gives us the evening and Sunday morning to visit with Janie and Louise and Lillie, all three of them sisters of my late father. But first, they’re going to Cherry Lane to sing hymns.

When we get to Janie’s house, she has a huge spread already laid out on the kitchen counter: half a dozen or so barbecued chicken halves wrapped in tin foil from the VFW, a platter of deviled eggs, some cut-up cucumbers, a bowl of pork and beans, a plate of sliced tomatoes, a big bowl of slaw, and a chocolate pound cake.

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I should have been ready for it, but I wasn’t. My daughter’s sixteenth birthday couldn’t have come as a shock to me, and yet it did. I have had all these years to prepare for this day, but I am not sure there is any way that you can really prepare for it, that day when your child places one foot squarely into the swampy chaos of adulthood, with the other foot all too soon to follow. Because, brothers and sisters, once they get their driver’s license, it’s the beginning of the end.

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A friend of mine is in line at the drive-thru of a local fast food restaurant, and a guy with Trump decals all over the back of his truck pulls into the wrong lane, facing those who are trying to “drive through,” realizes his error, lifts his middle finger to all of those waiting in line, and then races off shouting out his window, “Trump, Trump, Trump! Like it or get out of my country!”

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When my wife brought up the possibility of camping at this year’s Merlefest — a four-day and three-night music festival in Wilkes County — naturally, we thought she had taken ill or had just awakened from a bad dream, which will sometimes cause her to say things like, “Did you put away the jar of spiders” or “No, you cannot borrow my helicopter.”

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“What? Over? Did you say ‘over’? Nothing is over until we decide it is! Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor? Hell no!”

— John “Bluto” Blutarsky, Animal House, 1978

“I mean had Andrew Jackson been a little bit later you wouldn’t have had the Civil War. He was a very tough person, but he had a big heart …. People don’t realize, you know, the Civil War, if you think about it, why?”

— Donald J. Trump, White House, 2017

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As all successful couples understand, the key to happiness is mastering the art of communication. When facing a Big Decision — like whether or not to foster shelter dogs, for example — the successful couple will sit down with flexible minds and full hearts, outlining all of the issues in neat and revealing columns, so that each point can be thoughtfully and compassionately considered and, if necessary, debated until compromises can be forged and a decision is reached.

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I was all set to write another column on Donald Trump, who somehow seems more unhinged with each passing week, but when I sat down to write it, I had an epiphany: it is opening day of baseball season, spring is the air, and the NCAA basketball championship is just hours away. Simply put, I am in too good a mood to write about Trumplethinskin. This week, I would rather eat a bowl of thumbtacks than spend one more minute thinking about him.

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I found them in the corner of the basement, hidden like Easter Eggs underneath a blue tarp which was itself partially obscured by a couple of discarded boxes. Our basket of baseballs. I cannot recall exactly when or why we started keeping a dozen or more baseballs in an old Easter basket — most likely because it was handy and I couldn’t lay my hands on a bucket just then — but for the past several years, when spring rolls around and chases the frost out of the yard, I make my annual descent into the basement to fetch the baseball basket.

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As near as I can tell, the readers of this newspaper are pretty evenly divided on whether I should continue writing columns about President Donald Trump. I get emails, letters, Facebook messages and comments from readers I bump into at church or in the grocery store who assure me that I am contributing something meaningful to our democracy and urge me on, as a member of the much-maligned free press doing my best to speak truth to power. At the very least, those of us in the media who are willing to take on Trump are providing some measure of relief or catharsis to those who feel threatened, disgusted or alienated by the president.

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There has never been a president like Donald Trump. There has never been a campaign like the campaign that Trump waged to win the election. And there has never been a first month of a new administration like the first month of the Trump administration.

His detractors — and I am one of them — need to stop saying, “This is not normal.” Of course it is not normal. It was never supposed to be normal. The appeal of Trump was built upon that precipice. The American people were fed up with “normal” as it pertains to American politics, so to use that particular phrase as a rallying cry of the resistance is to miss the point entirely.

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They were both quiet, their voices barely audible even during roll call, and absolutely silent otherwise. Even as a new teacher, I understood that freshman English was a class that most students simply endured, rather than enjoyed. I had not really enjoyed it that much myself when I had been a freshman, so what flint did I have that could generate a spark for writing narrative or comparison and contrast essays among my own students? Neither Steve nor David seemed to express any more interest than I had in the immense possibilities that writing an essay might contain.

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For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.

—1 Corinthians 13:12 King James Version (KJV)

As I was looking through the photographs from around the country from the Women’s March last Saturday — including more than a few of my wife and daughter, who marched with a group of friends in Asheville — I was struck by the many expressions and images of sheer joy, when I guess I was expecting something more along the lines of anger and defiance. By all accounts, the turnout for the marches across the country far exceeded anyone’s most optimistic expectations, and the overall theme seemed to be the restoration of some lost hope for a lot of people who have not had much to celebrate in the past few months.

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I turned 18 three weeks too late to vote for Ronald Wilson Reagan for president of the United States, but if I had been eligible to vote, I would have voted for him. The world seemed too complicated and too dark to me. Every night on the evening news, there were reports of more violence in the Middle East, rising interest rates, out of control inflation, an economy in the toilet. President Carter — who nobody doubted was a good man with the best of intentions — just didn’t seem to be the kind of man to lead the country out of what he himself called a “crisis of the spirit.” He coined that phrase in what would later be remembered as the infamous “malaise speech.”

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I don’t know about you, but I need a quiet place about now. I need to turn off the news and close my laptop and just take a break from all of the noise. I need to put my fury away, shut down all the lights except for those on the Christmas tree, and have Doris Day sing “Silver Bells” to me alone, slumping down in my easy chair with a hot mug of chamomile tea here as the whole miserable year collapses into darkness.

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It has been a few weeks now since the election, and I feel like someone who just came out of a coma and woke up in the hospital after suffering a traumatic injury. I am surrounded by dozens of cards and letters from friends assuring me that I am going to be OK and that “everything is going to be fine.”

A couple of friends are by my side, trying to explain what happened, but I gradually realize they are speaking another language and I have no idea what they are saying. I tell them that I do not feel fine, but they just smile and nod. My head hurts and my toes are burning like French fries in hot grease. On a little table next to my bed, there is a half-eaten container of blue Jello, and next to that, my heart, slimy and still beating, as if the doctor — perhaps a graduate of Trump University — forgot to put it back in before sewing me back up.

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I am old enough and comfortable enough with my shortcomings to just admit it: I am not very good at Halloween. I never really have been. In my youth, other kids my age would imagine and then design — or have their crafty soccer mothers design — elaborate costumes with imaginative accessories. Little Evel Knievels and their little red-white-and-blue outfits with the stars and stripes and big collars, or little Calamity Janes with their cowboy hats, flannel shirts, boots and spurs, threatening the residents of our neighborhoods with their cap pistols until the neighbors turned over their caramel apples or at least a cupful of miniature Snickers.

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I am at the salad bar, evaluating the freshness of the broccoli and spinach, deciding whether I want croutons or sunflower seeds sprinkled on top, when I perceive a short, stocky man with dark hair sizing me up from the other side. I can already sense what is coming. Am I a confederate? Or, shudder, a liberal? Maybe apolitical, though how could I be — how could anybody be — with so much at stake in this election? He approaches, and I turn to acknowledge him just as I spear my second radish.

“That damn Hillary Clinton is out to ruin this country, you know it?” he says, leaning in a little. “If she gets in, we won’t recognize America two years from now.”

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