## The Parabola of an Itch

As Wikipedia explains, “In mathematics, a parabola is a plane curve, which is mirror-symmetrical, and is approximately U-shaped when oriented as shown in the diagram below (it remains a parabola if is differently oriented).” No, don’t run away, it’s gets interesting in a minute. Just picture a parabola.

At the top axis on the left is when the itch begins. At the midpoint or bottom, when the number hits zero, is when you reach maximal despair. And at the top right axis, when we’re back at 1, it means you’ve reached nirvana, or the end of the itchiness.

By IkamusumeFan – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37254596

When the itch started, it was nothing much. I was sitting on the sofa reading something about the President. I was already experiencing mild consternation. Then I felt something on my foot. I reached down and scratched. Then I scratched some more. Finally, I took my sock off and surveyed the surface of my foot. Three bumps, and some redness. I shook my head and took my sock off.

Eight hours later. It’s three a.m., the time of most of my small and large emergencies. I’m wide awake and scratching; indeed, I was dead asleep and scratching and I know this because the three bumps have multiplied, thickened, and expanded. And my fingers are cramped up, like they’ve been working hard. Busy little fingers. I stumble into the bathroom, apply hydrocortisone, and check the clock. It’s too early, or too late. I go back to sleep.

Five hours later. I’m now about at the 0.75 line, which brings with it a startling recognition: the itch is worse. The rash is spreading. I conduct a mad search for the steroidal cream I’ve been hoarded since the Last Great Itch. This involved poison ivy (cue the song).

I find the steroid cream: the great and wonderful Alclometasone Dipropionate USP, 0.05 %. There’s half a container left. I apply it and smile.

The first day of itching passes. I am still happy more or less. It’s just an itch. A small tiny rash on the top of my left foot. And no, there’s no way it can relate to the Lamictal I’m taking. Never mind that a Lamictal rash can be deadly if untreated. I’m fine.

Day 2.

I wake up and run into the kitchen in search of the steroid cream. “Morning Mom!”

“Ugh I am dying.”

“Want some coffee?”

“In a sec.” I gasp and apply lotion. It will take ten to fifteen minutes to allay the burn. I turn to my son and for the second time that minute, I lecture myself internally: do not scratch it, do not even think about scratching it, do not even think about not scratching it, it’s just a wee little rash. It’s Day 2. I’m still happy, but it’s definitely an itch on the level of a poison ivy. That said, every bout of poison ivy I’ve had has ended more or less on Day 3 once I apply steroid cream. All will be better tomorrow.

Day 3, Evening.

I’m on the sofa. It’s cozy. I’m curled up next to my man. Suddenly I sit bolt upright. “Oh my God, Ben, get me the stuff fast!”

“The what stuff?”

“Ben,” Maddie explains, “Her foot is itching, get the white and red itch lotion.”

I cringe waiting. It takes him at least an hour to return with it, and he’s our best runner. After my rabbit returns and hands me “the stuff,” I rub it on and say to my man, “Look at it, is it getting better?”

“Same as yesterday,” he says.

The Red and White “Stuff”

“So it’s not better?”

“No.”

“Is it worse?”

He shakes his head and gives me a sympathetic smile.

“Did you know some people die from Lamictal reactions?”

“Really?”

“Yeah.” I nod sagely. “But this is no Lamictal rash.”

“I suppose you’ve been looking at things on the internet.”

“Not yet.” I swallow, and gaze mournfully at my foot.

Day 4.

Our charity has a big event. I have a speech to give. But my main concern is how to prepare for a night of itching. There will be no removal of socks while speaking. Boots must be worn. Appearances must be maintained. There will be no itching at the Open Mic. It’s two hours before go-time. I sit on the sofa watching football. Iowa’s losing. We are both mournful. We wonder outside at halftime. I am sock and shoeless and it’s freezing cold, but there is hope. It’s been four days. The itch must end soon.

“Sweetie,” my man says.

“Huh?”

I bend my toes and shake my head. “Nope. Blue is a pretty color.”

“Yes. I think I should cut it off.”

“That’s a little draconian,” he says.

“Not to mention dramatic,” I say.

That night. We get home after midnight. I hop out of my boots as fast as a firefighters hops into his. I leave a trail of socks in my wake and I sprint to the kitchen counter. I grab “the stuff.”

Day 5.

It’s Sunday. I look up the Lamictal pictures. I sigh and quiver a little, but I’m still courageous and staunch. My foot looks nothing like the man in the picture, whose back is covered in burning scabbed-over rash fires. “It’s not a Lamictal rash,” I say aloud. “But they really are fatal, and there’s a black box warning on the label. Says you should call your doctor at the first sign of a rash.” I’m leaning against the kitchen counter, one eye warily watching Ben as he throws a book a few inches from my steroid cream.

“A rash can’t be fatal, can it?”

“Yes, Lamictal rashes can be fatal, says so in the literature.”

He gives me a skeptical look. Then a light of recognition comes into his blue eyes. “I’ve seen men lose arms and feet after a spider bite.”

“That’s nice,” I say. “You could cut my foot off right now.”

“Cut it off?”

“Yes. I don’t want it anymore.”

“But you won’t die from it.” He smiles at me.

“No I won’t, not if they cut it off.”

Day 6.

Monday. Two days before we head to Montana for Thanksgiving.

I take a shower. It burns. And now the bumps have spread to the sides of the ankle. EL, it’s probably a Lamictal rash. It’s been five days and the rash is not responding to anything, I think to myself. Plus, you’re going away in two days.

So I call the doctor’s office. They have no appointments until Friday. I can call back in an hour and talk to a nurse. “Okay, thank you,” I say. Then I write a technical note to the doctor in less than 1,000 characters. Afterwards, I speak to a nurse.

Then I wait. There’s no response. I swallow two Benadryls. I’m sleepy and it still itches. I whine all afternoon, and by the time dinner passes and there’s no phone call, I realize I’ve reached the bottom of the parabola, where all hope is lost.

“Did we ever get a fire extinguisher?” I look at my man and give him a macabre smile.

“We really need to get one,” he says.

“Yeah, we did almost burn the house down when we grilled bacon.” I shiver and then add, “I want to extinguish the burn, we should go out and get a fire extinguisher.”

“Doc hasn’t called back yet?”

“No, what if it spreads to my face? Just get me an extinguisher. Or cut it off.”

“A fire extinguisher would give you chemical burns, it’s not a good idea, but we should have one yes.”

“My face has been itching all day. Did you know Lamictal Rashes can be deadly?”

“You should call her again,” he says.

“I’m in despair, and I’m almost out of steroid lotion,” I say.

“But it hasn’t been helping, you still have a rash.”

“Without it, I would have died,” I say.

“Is this your anxiety talking by any chance?”

I grin. “No, this is righteous and unmitigated despair. People can die from this.”

“From Lamictal rashes?”

“Yes.”

Day 7.

I dream of parabolas and wake up wondering two things: one, why didn’t I pay better attention in pre-calculus? If I had, I could’ve gone to medical school instead of law school and now I could be writing my own prescriptions. And two, where did I leave the red and white nearly empty bottle of steroid lotion? And with a groan, I stumble out of bed and search for despair mitigation in a tiny bottle.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parabola#/media/File:Parabola_circle.svg

## Poor Poor Old Roy Moore

Hi Roy. It’s me. You don’t know me from one of the malls or high school football stadiums you frequent. You’ve never heard of me actually. I’m one of those girls who grew up. You actually know a lot of us because you have a taste for the young ones. We grow up as awkward, daffy creatures, but we go on to have babies. Then those babies make it to the tender age of fourteen. Like us when we were young, our teenagers hang out in packs and talk about boys. You should walk up and down a high school hallway sometime. Young love abounds. It’s cute and it’s sweet and it’s a little ridiculous, but that’s okay.

You know when you watch these kids that they’re more or less safe as long as they hang out in their noisy, gawky little groups, but if your kid wanders off, you worry about the predators. I live in a small mountain town called Front Royal. We worry about predators like bears, but we also worry about creeps.

My Daughter’s H.S. Band at Football Game

I told my daughter about creeps last night. I said, “He might be dressed nice, he might talk fancy, he might make you feel special, he might even be a judge or a priest, but if he asks you out, he’s a creep,” and then my youngest son piped up, “Don’t worry Mom, I’ll beat up any creep.” I looked over at him and smiled. “Son, you got another foot to grow before you can protect her, but that-a-boy, I like how you think.” Then I turned to my daughter and in the calmest voice I could summon, I said, “Don’t talk to men like that, they’re wolves who feed on easy prey, and right now, you and your friends are easy prey.”

I know you see things differently. You’ve got a taste for the forbidden. But here’s the thing, Roy. It’s forbidden for a reason. I go to football games every weekend to watch my kid play her clarinet in the band, and I listen to the sweet goofballs behind me. The girls are silly and loud. They curse and wear lipstick and try to look old. The boys sit behind the girls and try too hard. They preen and puff out their chests and drop f-bombs like firemen toss out candy at parades.

Goofy girls and boys. Birds of the same feather, here, Roy. If you listen to them, you’ll realize that among their cuss words and their soft-edged banalities, these kids don’t know where they’re going or how to get there. That’s why they have coaches and band teachers who know how to teach and guide young men and women. There’s many ways to guide a young woman, but we should all be able to agree that taking their innocence in the back of your Mercedes isn’t a good way.

In some ways I’m grateful you won’t step out of your race for the U.S. Senate. You are a part of our awakening. Men like you created the impetus for millions of mothers to march in cities all across the country earlier this year. We marched in Washington, we marched in New York City, we marched in the city streets with our peace signs and our pussy hats and we gave men like you a very simple message.

It goes like this.

Roy Moore in 2001, By BibleWizard

Dear Roy Moore:

Please be quiet. Like really, really quiet. Walk back home and sit down on the sofa and think about what you’ve done.

Yours Truly,

Mother of a Teenage Daughter

I thought about you last night. I have to worry about these things because the President and your friends in Alabama say you’re innocent until proven guilty. I know a hard truth though. Men like you run the legal system. Your accusers will never see justice done.

Then this morning, my cat vomited a hairball on the kitchen floor. Hairballs take a while to emerge but they are the outward manifestation of an inner sickness. Thanks Roy. You helped me understand the half-life and inner meaning of hairballs. On the outside you’re as fine a gentleman as Alabama can offer. You sit behind the bench with your gavel and hand out judgments in full view of the Ten Commandments, but your inner world is devoid of the holiness you purport to enforce and honor.

You just hurled up a hairball, sir, and though it took years to manifest, it’s ugly and no one else is going to clean it up for you. Remember your savior? His name was Jesus, and he had a particular distaste for hypocrites. If he walked into your courtroom now, he would take his whip to you. After all, he really disliked the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. Speaking of the Pharisees, they handed him over to be crucified, all in the name of enforcing the law.

By: maorlando – God keeps me as I lean on Him!! from Far NW Houston, Pinehurst, Texas, U.S.A.

You do the same thing of course as a judge. You mete out punishments and brandish your beliefs as if they mean something to you. But your outer actions don’t match your professed inner world. If you really followed the Savior’s teachings, you would treat other fathers’ little girls the way you’d like your own daughter to be treated. If you really walked with God, you would realize that a man’s greatest moment is when he sacrifices his own needs to help someone else.

You do the opposite.

Sir, you dine on innocence. And while professing holiness, you vomit up hairballs. And unlike my beloved cat, you know you’re eating at the wrong table, but you do it anyway. Now you’re blaming the girls. I feel sorry for my cat. And she seems to feel sorry about the mess in the kitchen. You’re not sorry for anything.

All you think about is poor poor ole’ Roy Moore.

## My First Friend on the Mountain

Some people can walk up to other people and with the childlike confidence or perhaps innocence make a new friend. Like when we were in elementary school and landed on the ground after jumping down from the monkey bars. We see another kid, they smile at us, or we smile at them, and one of us says, “Hi, I’m so and so, will you be my friend?” Or you’re seated at a table of four in third grade and the boy next to you writes you a note: “Hey, wanna be friends?” Honestly, it never really happened this easily for me, even when I was in first grade, but I’ve seen other kids do it. And as an adult, I’ve watched with genuine astonishment, with something akin to envy but closer to respect, as other adults make friends with social grace and ease.

When I moved up to the mountain, I was in a brand new absolutely alien spot. The mountain was new; I was as new to it as the roaming packs of deer were to me. I was unprepared for stinkbugs and ladybird swarms; I didn’t know the difference between a copperhead and an eastern rat snake. I also wasn’t used to the new me: single mom, on my own with three kids—getting a fresh start, no less, all alone and knowing no one on my mountain.

For the first month or six weeks or so, I continued not knowing anyone. On my walks alone or with the kids, I would wave to everyone, and almost everyone would wave back. I chatted with a groundskeeper one day. He rented a home on the bottom of the mountain and performed maintenance work. He was friendly but we only talked for a few minutes. I ran into some other folks on one of my walks. I liked their dogs, and we talked about how cute their dogs were for a few minutes. But that was it. I had my kids, and I had my friends who lived far away.

Sometimes I was all alone on the weekends, but usually at least my daughter would be at home with me. On the rare weekends when all three kids went on their biweekly visits with their father, I would kinda lose my mind. The mountainside with its cliffs and its dense fogs sometimes seemed alive, but aloof and unfriendly. At those times, I would text or call my best friend and I’d whine. It would go something like this:

“OMG, I’m lonely, I don’t know what to do with myself. I’ve written 3,000 words, I’ve gone for a hike, no this time I didn’t get lost, now I’ve made dinner and I don’t know what else to do.”

“You need to meet people.”

“Meet people?”

“Yeah, go introduce yourself to someone or join a charity or something.”

“Ugh.”

“El, you like charities.”

“I know.”

“Guess I could bring my laptop and hide behind it while I drink a latte,” I mused.

“No. Don’t bring your laptop and hide.”

“Ugh, why can’t you move next door?”

“From across the country?” Her voice was edged with disbelief.

“Yes, it’s a really good idea.”

“You need people near you, someone you can play cards with.”

“But I’d have to meet them first.”

“Yes, if you want to play cards with someone you need to meet them first.”

“I know.”

“Or you could pay attention to the opposite sex, you know, think about dating,” she said.

“Argh.”

“Well, yes. Now go out and meet someone, I gotta go.”

I never did muster out to meet anyone. But one weekend, after living in our chalet for about six weeks, I was out for a walk with Ben. He was jumping from the edge of the ravine to the road, searching for rocks, all bundled up in his blue jacket against the cold of an October morning. And a voice with an eastern European accent called out to me, “Hi, good morning, how are you?”

I looked around until I spotted the curly blonde-haired owner of the voice. She was standing in the driveway of a barnhouse style cabin, with a view of the mountains behind her and a stack of firewood that was at least six or seven feet tall. She was middle-aged and a youthful fifty. Her cheeks were rosy; her eyes, wide set. She stood about five-five and her entire countenance spoke of health and the outdoors. With sparkling blue eyes, she could have walked out of a Susi Chapstick commercial. She’d have been one of the tour guides or the skiing instructors.

I swiveled around and took her in, and I couldn’t help smiling. “Hello there,” I said.

“Saw you walking the other day, you have such beautiful children.” She smiled at Ben, whose dirt-encrusted jeans bore rips in both knees.

“Thank you.” I smiled and tried not to look silly. “We’re living in Singh’s chalet for a few months until we can get something more permanent. My name’s El, it’s nice to meet you.”

She walked towards me with her hand out. “I’m Katya.”

After we shook hands, I smiled again.

Katya smiled back.

“I think I saw you too, have you been here long?”

“Ten years.”

“Wow,” I said.

“I moved up here after my divorce.” Then Katya began to talk, and I forgot about feeling shy or silly. I just listened for several minutes as she relayed her story. She still loves her husband very much. They were, in fact, soulmates, or something close to that. They sailed around the world together. Had a “beautiful” daughter. Had a “beautiful life” together, which all began when she was living in her native country Russia and “Will” was visiting from America. Katya hardly spoke English; Will, broken Russian. Yet they fell in love, and in time, Katya married Will and they lived happily ever after. Until they got divorced.

Katya skipped over the exact reasons for why she split with Will. She went on to say that they got along “beautifully,” and then she told me that she started in Front Royal with almost nothing to her name. But she had guts and smarts, not to mention a degree in finance. She opened her own consulting company, and with days left before a loan payment came due, she landed her first client. From there, Katya said with a cheerful smile, her business took off, and ever since, she has managed money for what sounded like a wide range of clients.

I took all this in. I listened and was intrigued, charmed and warmed by Katya’s story. Ben hopped in and out of our conversation, and then Katya said, “Would you like to come in and see my home?”

I said, “Sure, I’d love to, come on, Ben, we’re going to see Ms. Katya’s home,” and we followed her down the walkway, up the steps, and into a gorgeous, tidy, wonderful mountain home. She showed us all around, from the top floor to the bottom, and the whole time, we kept talking. Ben kept hopping in and out of the conversation, and two years later, Katya would laugh and remind me about how “Ben rolled around upside down on the floor.”

Katya and I talked about Russian and America; easy choices and not so easy ones; energy and the law of attraction; life and death; birth and rebirth; friends and soulmates; the end and the beginning; the before and the after. I didn’t inveigh on God too much, for we weren’t going to meet there, not exactly, just as we would never meet in the same place on all matters spiritual—and yet, we met, and somewhere in that meeting was this sense of solace that a good conversation brings.

Katya was my first friend on the mountain. She remains my friend to this day. And she is also singlehandedly responsible for finding me the home I now own—but that’s another story. For another day.

How about you? Is it easy for you to make friends? And do you have friends you can walk and talk with, or do you find friendship over long distances or online?

## One More Word? Yes, He is My Son

The notes and phone calls keep coming like junk mail or telemarketers who call at dinnertime.  Yesterday he got sent to the Vice Principal’s Office after he used his finger to shoot another kid.  The school has a no-tolerance policy for fake-finger guns.  And my son distracted all his classmates.  His table tattled on him because if he got them in trouble, they wouldn’t earn enough points to receive lollipops.  And he called a boy on his bus a “diaper head” on the way home from school.  He had a very, very bad day.  So my husband made him spread mulch as punishment, and I insisted that my dimpled mess of a son apologize to each and every soul he hurt first thing in the morning.  And I planned to show up unannounced for lunch.

And I did.  I entered the school and immediately I spotted a little guy with baggy jean shorts, skinny legs, massive calves and a rust-colored long-sleeved t-shirt.  He wore a vacant, frightened stare on his face.  I tried to breathe but his fear and pain were palpable and it hurt me to see this little boy because he is mine.

Then he saw me.  And hope entered his eyes.  He tried to smile and then looked behind him for his teacher.  He took his odd little hop, skip and dance-step and followed me with his eyes as I circled behind him to check into the office.  He did not scream “Mama” out loud but his entire body leaned toward me, into me, as if we were the opposing poles of a magnet.  I winked at my man-child and barked at his teacher, “Where will you be next?”  She told me that they had lunch in fourteen minutes.

A minute later, I caught up to Ben.  Standing in the elementary school hallway by the bathrooms, he appeared lost and so little, and so did his tiny classmates.  I felt their confusion and uncertainty and fear and I wanted to put their inchoate voices out of my mind.  A little boy spoke.  “Ben’s Mom?”

I nodded genially.  “Yes.”

A female creature heard that I was Ben’s mom and she said, “You’re Ben’s Mom?”  I tried to say I was and she cried, “Ben is bad!”

A darkness descended and my vision blurred.  I imagined my hand slamming through the glass window and blood dripped.  I closed my eyes and I counted to ten and I tried to think but I spoke without thinking.  I was running on reflex and running from anger and deep-seated rage at what happened to Little El.  She was “bad.”  She was very very bad.  Not my son.  “No, Ben is not bad.”

“Yes he is,” argued another little girl.  “He always gets in trouble.”

The glass is shattering and Little El screams.  Shhh.  It is okay sweetie.  I am holding you.  “Perhaps he does bad things sometimes, but he is punished, was—“

Another boy chimed in before I could finish explaining that actions have consequences in our home.  “Ben is always bad.  Are you Ben’s Mom?”  I shake my head in frustration and try to answer but shards of glass are stabbing me.

His teacher walks toward me and starts to correct one of the boys.  Before she can start in on me, I mumble, “Did he do anything wrong today?”

“No, not at all.  In fact, he apologized to the entire class this morning, first thing.”  His teacher is a veteran, and she does not put up with much, so when another kid interrupts and starts to tell Ben’s Mom that Ben is bad, she shakes her head at him, but my voice carries.  “Right, so at least 5 kids have already told me that Ben is bad.”  The teacher shakes her head and scoffs.  “We don’t use that word.  We say he is weak.”

“My SON IS NOT WEAK.”  I am not yelling but my body is torn.  It’s like my heart is bursting out of my chest.  Ben often tells me that he loves me so much his heart is bursting with love.  I feel that now for him.  My son raises his hand, and speaks with outrage, “Jason says my Mom is mean.”  I glare at Jason and then I recall that he is 5 and I try, very hard, to smile and I do, sort of smile.  It’s funny.  I smile so often, so easily, most days but now my heart hurts too much.  But I smile anyway.

His teacher finds me in the lunchroom and she grabs my hands and she promises me that she didn’t mean he was weak and I believe her, I think.  I tell her how hard we are trying, but all I want to do is buy Ben his pretzel.  And I want the glass to stop breaking.  And I buy our pretzels and we eat and I hug my man-child and he sits on my lap and the time passes.

That’s when it happens.  She asks me if Ben is my son, and I can’t take anymore, but one thing I am not is rude.  I stop.  I turn.  And I look her in the eyes and I respond, proud but grim, “Yes, yes he is my son.”

She smiles.  Her eyes are full of light.  “I love your son.  He is a lovely boy.”  My chest stops aching.  The glass stops breaking.  And she keeps talking to me, “He has such a sweet soul and the girls will love him.  A sweet boy—your boy.”  I hold his lunch box and for the first time in an hour, I feel warm.  “Thank you.  That means so much to me.  Thank you.  Thank you.  Yes, he is my son.”  I leave the lunchroom and I tell my son again how much I love him and I go home and wait for him to return to me.

© March 23, 2012 E. L. Phoenix

When I was a little girl, I was girly about ladybugs. I loved them. I loved in particular the idea of taking a VW Bug and decorating it like a real-life, breathing, belching personification of all things ladybug. I loved them so much, I wrote stories about the little Ladybug I’d own someday. Thank goodness those stories were long since lost, but my ladybug fascination would one day come back to haunt me.

It all started one hot October afternoon. I was sitting there minding my own business, or minding my kids’ business, or minding my characters’ business, and I feel this sharp, this violent and brutal attack, to my forearm. I’m thinking a wasp has gotten in through the screen, so I look down like I’m gonna slap this thing, and I freeze. It’s a sweet little red and black thing. And it’s biting me.

By BTDenyer – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15706449

Now, a word about these red and black . . . things. I did some research on them and it turns out they cause all sorts of outraged argumentation among entomologists. I of course am no entomologist (though I did take a course on Entomology in undergrad, but that was only because it didn’t require a lab and I wanted an easy A; it was not, as it turns out, an easy A but that’s another matter—suffice to say I have a weak fortitude for all things insect-related). Anyway, a ladybug is not really a bug—it’s a beetle. And it’s actually a ladybird. As an entomologist from the University of Florida explains it if not clearly, at least in a way that will amuse all but the most dour of readers:

Ladybird is a name that has been used in England for more than 600 years for the European beetle Coccinella septempunctata. As knowledge about insects increased, the name became extended to all its relatives, members of the beetle family Coccinellidae. Of course these insects are not birds, but butterflies are not flies, nor are dragonflies, stoneflies, mayflies, and fireflies, which all are true common names in folklore, not invented names. The lady for whom they were named was “the Virgin Mary”, and common names in other European languages have the same association (the German name Marienkafer translates to “Marybeetle” or ladybeetle). Prose and poetry mention ladybird, perhaps the most familiar in English being the children’s rhyme: Ladybird, ladybird, fly away home, your house is on fire, your children all gone…

Okay, so honestly, I reread it three times and I didn’t understand that either. See, I got stuck on the song:

After years of bewilderment, I understand what this song really means. The little beasts are taking over your home. They’re biting you so hard your arm burns! RUN!

Ladybird eating an aphid U.S. Public Domain, image by Scott Bauer

The latter invaded my home, beginning on that hot October afternoon. They came two by two and then two hundred by two hundred, and they wouldn’t sit still or stop hopping and flying from one light to the other in our overrun Chalet. I didn’t know anyone up on the mountain yet, so I didn’t realize our situation was a common one for Shenandoah dwellers. I thought at first the ladybirds were just welcoming us to our new home. Until, that is, I counted more than one hundred of them circling our dining room table like airplanes flying the pattern awaiting a spot to land.

When the cute killers passed from hapless messengers bearing good tidings to home invaders with teeth, I reassessed my position. I was like a general surveying the battlefield. And thus I became a killer. As usual, the boys launched into action and joined the assault. We became killers, but we never defeated the enemy.

To my shock, Madeline joined the ladybird team, and like the Virgin Mary after which they were named, she protected them from harm. As she later explained with a smile, “We all know my room was the bug emporium, so they gathered there and kept me company. One would land on my fingers and I would kiss her and tell her about my day. Others would sit on my windowsill, waiting for their turn to visit.”

Two years later, I would ask her about the ladybirds. “How did you go from terrified of all insects to befriending these Coccinellidae?”

“Aw that’s a great word, do you think it will be on the SATs?”

“No.” I laughed. “You’ll be seeing words like bellicose and consternation. Which would be a good description of your ladybirds.”

Madeline gasped. “No, no,” she said. “That’s a calumny. A better word for my lady friends would be innocuous, mellifluous, peripatetic or resplendent.

“Gah, that’s hyperbolic, at best they’re Flibbertigibbets. In truth, they cause an imbroglio, an absolute effrontery to household harmony.”

“Mom, you launched an all-out dragoon, you forced the boys to join in your brouhaha—”

“—A dragoon?”

“Yes, the word means to compel into compliance, often with violent measures—”

“—Did not!”

“And the results were draconian, did you know that word comes from Draco, a politician from Athens whose codified laws were notorious for their severity, such as death for minor offenses?”

“I need to talk to your history teacher.”

“And tell him what exactly?”

“Oh, well, I’ll tell him you went from being a cold-blooded killer to being an ignominious protector of pests.”

“Oh,” she said, “Well if you do that, remember to make a good comparison.”

“Like what? I know you created a list of the worst lady killers, ha did you like my pun?”

“No, but go on.”

Public Domain in the U.S. Original painting “The Apparition,” by Gustave Moreau 1876

“Oh, well, give me a name from your list of female baddies I can compare you too before you became Florence Nightingale.”

Madeline’s eyes gleamed. “Perfect one is the lady who ordered the . . . what was her name?”

“Uh, I see where’s you’re going with it, nope that’s not appropriate really.”

Madeline looked up from her notebook and frowned. “Yeah you’re right, but in a way it’s perfect, like you ordered the death of all stinkbugs and all other flying insects—”

“—What else you got?”

“The lady who washed herself in the blood of the children she killed?”

“Ew,” I said. “And what’s more, you wouldn’t touch a dead bug, nor would you even view their dead carcasses, you just pleaded for their death.”

“Hmm, true.”

“Yeah,” I said, “And it wouldn’t be appropriate to bring up the woman who ordered John the Baptist’s death.”

“No, probably not.”

“It’s actually downright offensive, he was, after all, my favorite prophet, well, after Jesus,” I added.

“And Elijah, you love him too, uh, what was the name of the one who ordered Herod to kill—”

“—Herodias’ daughter Salome they were horrid, we need someone else.”

“Okay.” Madeline shut her notebook and grabbed her backpack. “I gotta go, I can look for other alternatives after school, but I think you deserve the comparison to the serial killers. After all, you killed my friends.” And with that, she got the last word.

In the end, there was no true end to the ladybird invasion. In time, I gave in and stopped trying to kill them. They never bit me again, and I didn’t really hate them. In fact, I grew rather proud of them, so much so that when my parents came to visit, I introduced them to my ladybird swarm. “See, they like us, aren’t they kinda cute?”

“Very nice, sweetie,” my mom said.

“Yeah, we don’t usually have quite so many as we have today, but it’s hot. Goes above eighty, we get over a hundred.” I scanned the main living area. There were well over a hundred red and bug ladybirds crawling around and circling the light fixture. “But when it cools off, numbers will go down, especially on cool nights.”

My dad looked up from his newspaper. “I think you’re getting used to mountain living.” As always, he was laconic in his remarks.

“Yes,” Mom beamed. “Crab cakes will be ready soon, sweetie.”

## Moving to Front Royal: The Reign of the Stink Bug

Our not so trusty Honda Pilot

The kids and I moved five days after they started in their new schools on August 15, 2015. The move itself was crazy, and done in small and large parts. I began house hunting in a town called Linden, a suburb of Front Royal. A wonderful realtor named Sue Laurence from Re/Max helped us through the entire process. A word about Sue: she was the first person I met in Front Royal, and she’s a special lady. I’ve known and worked with a few realtors. Jim Souvagis was great–he helped us in Northern Virginia. Another lady helped us sell our last home, but she wasn’t like Sue from Front Royal. Sue is one of those genuinely kind humans who treat you well no matter your situation. She was kind to my kids, all of whom are quite outspoken, and who together form a tight triumvirate of friendly yet boisterous noisiness.

Anyway, Sue met us with a smile and treated me as well as a woman could ask to be treated. We viewed several cabin-style homes and eventually settled on a plan to build a new house. The lot I put an offer on had one of those crane-your-neck out the side of a back window views of a tiny lake. After putting down an offer and then talking more with my bank, I realized I wouldn’t qualify for a loan until our house in Northern Virginia sold. And it wasn’t selling, or would it sell for another three months. It looked like I could lose my entire deposit–but I was lucky. The sellers countered with a request that I increase the escrow amount, so this gave me a way out of the contract.

Nonetheless, I had nowhere to move the kids; I had no home, other than the old one that wouldn’t sell. I was in a fix here, and it seemed impassable. I had already signed the kids up for school in Front Royal. I was committed and obdurately set on getting them into their new schools by the start of the year. I didn’t want to put them through the hell of a midyear transition. But still “she persisted,” as the slogan on one of my t-shirts says. School was starting in a week. I had nowhere to live. I couldn’t buy a house, not yet. I’d have to rent.

Sue at this point worked an actual miracle. She knew a guy of Indian descent—an engineer who lived alone in a tiny chalet in the neighborhood I would later buy a house in, but I’ll leave out the name for the sake of my family’s privacy. Sue knew the engineer because she had represented him on his own house purchase. Anyway, this man was about to take a three-month sabbatical, and he would, Sue thought, be happy to rent the chalet out to me while he was pursuing his spiritual enlightenment.

Two days later, we viewed the chalet, and the kids and I fell in love with it. It’s almost impossible to describe the serenity and peace this chalet breathed with its every last molecule. The inside, mind you, was stripped down. The kitchen could’ve been out of a traveler’s mobile home. There was only 1200 square feet, with one bedroom downstairs and two more upstairs. But it didn’t matter. When you stood on the deck and looked outward, you saw over top ash and maples a stunning palette of mountain splendor. The house itself was near the top of the tallest peak in Front Royal, and at night, explained the engineer, the lights of the valley glittered like several thousand dots of brightly-colored candy. A breeze rushed through the wrap-around porch, and you could see for miles in all directions. We could be safe here, and like one of the characters in my book The Unlikely Prophet, when you scanned the horizon, you could spot danger before it got close enough to hurt you.

I found the money to pay the security deposit and the first month’s rent, which was modest. For a week, the kids attended school via a long commute from our old home, and I spent the days hiking Skyline drive and writing in the library while they got accustomed to their new teachers. I also dealt with another not small emergency. The SUV I had purchased nine days earlier collapsed in a loud, thunking unbearable clunk—which is the sound a vehicle makes when its transmission dies. I spent days trying to figure out a better option. The teachers at the elementary school thought I was of woman of substantial means, because I kept driving different cars, including a zippy but tiny blue Mini Cooper. But finally, with a steadfast friend at my side during the three hour negotiation process, I leased a Mazda CX-5. The credit manager took one look at my desperate face after he explained that divorce destroys everyone’s credit, including to my shock my own, and gave me a good interest rate. He “vouched” for me, which was a kindness I would encounter many more times in my journey as a single mom.

Speaking of kindness, the engineer left the chalet furnished, so we didn’t have to undergo an expensive and difficult move. Instead, we borrowed a dear neighbor’s minivan and moved some of our possessions into the chalet. The drive up the mountain to our new home took us on roads that twisted around steep hillsides, and I soon learned the intricacies of driving on nine-degrees grades that took you on S-curves. That first night, we stood on the porch and watched the sun glide down over the edge of our world and then disappear, and each one of us smiled.

Then we began to explore our mountain. I got settled into my writing routine, which consisted of typing on my iMac in the front living area while thirstily gazing out through wall-to-wall windows at the restive landscape that surrounded me. Patches of strawberries and blackberries weaved themselves into the ravine that collided with the back edge of our property. Ash trees and tall grasses, wildflowers and honeysuckle fanned out along the slope below. If you stood on the edge of the porch, especially when the fog rolled in, you felt like you were standing at the stern of a ship gazing out at edge of the world.

When I wasn’t writing or trying to figure out how to pay bills I couldn’t pay, I was wrapped up ever so tightly in the world of my children, just as they were tied to me. We grew closer and closer as the hot days of August gave way to the still steamy days of September. At night, the wind would blow in through our doors and windows, and when we slept, we dreamed to a chorus of crickets that hummed and blurted out ditties none of us understood. In the mornings, we stumbled out the front door, took a look at a sky that would never lose its hint of magic and fairy dust, and settled into the Mazda for a ride on streets that had names that evoked forests and mountain peaks.

In the afternoons, we walked and talked about life, about school, about all the tiny but telling matters that occupy a mother and her three children. The effect of moving to Front Royal was immediate. We saw good augurs everywhere. My daughter made friends the very first day—friends who remain close a few years later. My middle child not only wasn’t ostracized for his long hair but met two other long-haired boys on the first day. And my youngest drew the longest stick in the lottery of teachers: he was assigned to an energetic, positive, just completely wonderful male teacher. The kids, in other words, were flourishing, which was not something that could have been said about their experiences in what is lauded to be one of the best school systems in the country: Fairfax County. To this day, all three Phoenix children are happy here in Warren County.

Meanwhile, we got our first taste of mountain living. I quickly learned it takes strength, fortitude and courage to put down roots in a world where deer and bear and other critters truly own the land you live on. When you drive down the mountain, you had better go slow on the hairpin turns lest you run over wild turkey, a fox, or God help everyone, a skunk. Deer walk up to you and stare at you, which isn’t a bad thing, but bears come onto your porch and snatch apple pies out of your kitchen windows up here on our mountain. More troubling, however, are the creatures who co-inhabit your home with you.

It started with the stink bugs. Also known as the brown marmorated stink bug, these stinky buggers “invade homes in the fall. Thousands can invade a single home. In fact, in one home more than 26,000 stinkbugs were found.”

These beasts entered our chalet by fitting under the wood siding. And they came in through the windows. They trotted in under the doorframes. They fell from the very sky into our front room via the chimney. Any opening big enough to fit through brought in more of them, and our chalet was a holey thing. It lacked weather-stripping and other sophistications you get accustomed to when you live in a suburb. And we didn’t have A/C, so the windows were always open.

Some nights, we’d spend hours hunting the mottled grayish-brown monsters. My daughter retreated to her bedroom often in a panic—only to find a stink bug grinning at her from under her pillow. One night, we had our first and only fight while living in the chalet. It went like this.

“No.”

“Why not?”

“There’s stink bugs in my room, I’m not going.”

“Come on, you need to go practice,” I said.

“Hell no, I’m not going.”

“But you need to sleep tonight too.”

“Not going.”

“I’ll go with you,” I said.

“Not going,” she said.

“Come on, come upstairs with me,” I said.

“No way.”

“Come on, this won’t kill you.”

“Will too, they’re evil.”

“They’re ugly yes, but they don’t harm anyone.”

“Will too.”

“How?”

“Psychological torment,” she said.

This argument went on for quite some time. Like an hour. It grew heated. I yelled, she yelled. Finally I vanquished all stink bugs as well as any sign of any other bug, insect, beetle or living creature in her room. I got Jim to scan the hallway, Ben to survey the upstairs bathroom. Madeline entered her bedroom, and broke out her clarinet. But it wasn’t over. She never did get over the beastly brown monsters.

My sons were stalwart. And I remained brave—until one landed on my upper thigh in the dead of night. I jumped at least ten feet in the air in uncontained shock . . . and then I killed it. And we killed an entire dust buster in a misbegotten attempt to vacuum up the little serenity-robbers. After a month or two, I attained a new Zen state which admittedly resembled more a defeated resignation to our cohabitation.

And that’s when the ladybugs came.

Stay tuned for the next blog for more on life in Front Royal—and the menacing attack of the “Coccinellidae,” or the plural “Coccinellids,” which is the species more popularly known as the ladybug.

## Front Royal: Why I Moved West

Two years ago and two months, I moved with my three children to Front Royal, Virginia. For you Jersey natives who go by exits, that’s exit 13 off Route 66, which runs from DC all the way to its end point thirteen miles west of Front Royal. If you’re looking at a map, this is also where I-66 intersects with I-81 North and South. I-81 also has a story of its own: it runs from its northern terminus at the tip of New York, just shy of the Canadian border, to its southern end point in Dandridge Tennessee. As Wikipedia explains, “Interstate 81 largely traces the paths created down the length of the Appalachian Mountains by migrating animals, American Indians, and early settlers. It also follows a major corridor for troop movements during the Civil War.”

I could have settled anywhere in Virginia, but something deep inside me told me to head due west. I picked Front Royal as our new home when my marriage was coming to a grinding end. That last year, when things got hairy at our home in Northern Virginia, my kids and I (especially the corner kids) would leave for an adventure. Sometimes we headed south to Fountainhead Park for a hike along the Occoquan River, but usually we went west. Like early settlers, we were searching for something akin to freedom, and when we went west, we took an exit that read: I-66 West—Front Royal. It might sound too simple, but I basically chose a new home based on a feeling it gave me when I drove in its direction.

While driving west, I felt safe inside. The kids and I would journey through Front Royal until we arrived at the northern tip of the Shenandoah Mountains in Virginia. We’d drive along the twisting road called “Skyline Drive,” where the speed limit is 35, until we reached a good hiking spot. By the way, as an aside, Skyline Drive was built during the Depression, when the government initiated a working program called the Civilian Conservation Corps to put the unemployed to work. The CCC was a beautiful project in the sense that it gave the men working under it a means to maintain their own homes and families.

Anyway, we’d drive to the northern entrance of Skyline drive and stop at the gate to speak with a ranger. I bought an Interagency Annual pass for \$80 that allows you to visit more than 2,000 federal parks an unlimited number of times over the year. We use the heck out of our Annual Pass(es). Anyway, I’d talk to the ranger for a couple minutes, and then we’d head north on Skyline Drive. I’ve always been a fast-lane kind of driver, but driving fast and driving on Skyline Drive don’t mesh. It’s one of those inconsistencies that life throws at you to teach you a lesson. In my case, the lesson is patience. Once we were inside the park, we’d drive at an impossibly slow speed because of the trailers and out-of-towners who meander along as if every drive were a Sunday drive.

You can hike almost anywhere you want in the Shenandoahs, but we have found some special spots. Our favorite hike back then was at mile 19.4, where several trails extend out on Hogback Mountain. As Hiking Upwards states, “The Hogback Mountain hike, with its spectacular views west towards the Massanutten ranges, is located in an area of the SNP that has several beautiful hikes including Piney Branch and Little Devil Stairs. With just over 1,200ft of vertical gain and 7.5 miles, this is a pleasant moderate day hike.”

If you wanted to look up the trail names (which include the beautifully titled “Little Devils Stair Trail”) you can go here. The parking lot for Hogback is full in the summer and fall, but pretty deserted in November and through the winter. Once you park, you can choose a direction or route. Instead of following a loop, I always go on down and backs because I have the tendency to get lost. Growing up, my children accepted my version of getting lost. I’d giggle and say, “we’re taking a ‘longcut’ kids.” That works great when you’re driving your SUV, but it’s not so great when your “childers” have to hike your longcut.

So I go with the safest way of hiking for me: a down and back. This term simply refers to a hike where you go aways and then turn and come back the other way. Hogback isn’t easy, but it’s deceptive, because you go down a big hill for an hour and you’re happy. Then you turn around and realize, “Oh man, we’re going uphill until we reach the car.” Or if you turn the phrase around you come up with: “we won’t reach the car unless we make it back up that hill.”

Back up the Hill

As we walked and talked down then back up Hogback, we’d plan for our future. I need to take a longcut right now around a hard subject. My divorce.

I’ve been almost spectral-quiet about the divorce. And I’ll probably remain that way. Like a lot of women who went through the sort of thing I did, I am still scared of getting in trouble. I also don’t think it’s fair to use my platform to say whatever I want to say about my ex-husband. This goes at odds with my usual way of speaking, which is to be honest and straightforward, and to speak about the most personal matters without fear. So I’ve been paralyzed a bit, at least on this blog, for over two years now. Yet I feel like I’ve worked it out in my writing. My characters are free to tell my story, sort of, but it’s fictional there and it feels safe. And I’ve finally came to a place where I realize my need to speak freely is more important than my need to speak freely about every aspect of my life, and that one aspect I need to keep private for my family’s sake is the saga of my divorce.

So (I hope) that’s all I’ll ever say directly about why I left.

All of that is a long aside, and I want to end on a happy note.

It’s been almost three years now, and these visits to Hogback took me to a place where I felt safe enough to figure out my next steps. It’s also where I found my new home—off exit 13, in the small town of Front Royal. In the upcoming days, I’m going to write about how we settled here. There will be stories about stinkbugs and ladybugs, mice invasions and mouse family holocausts. I’ll talk about adapting to a smaller, more modest lifestyle in a place where ironically enough the distance between my neighbors is much larger than it used to be. And I’ll talk about how people help one another feel at home in my new home: Front Royal.

Please grab a chair and make yourselves at home. With me. In my new home that’s far, far away from the old hell I used to write about when this blog was titled, “Running from Hell with El.” Because now, I’m walking Home, and I’m walking there with friends and family always at my side.

We all need a place we call home, and now, that place for us is Front Royal.

## The Confusion of Charlottesville

We live in confusing times. I keep turning thoughts over as I peruse headlines and spot pictures of men carrying sticks, pipes and guns while supposedly enjoying their First Amendment right to peacefully assemble. I get stuck in weird places. Like I’ll be mid-sentence saying, “White supremacists in Charlottesville weren’t looking to peacefully assemble. You aren’t looking for peace when you don shields and firearms,” and then I read or hear someone say, “Yeah, so you think it’s right for Black Lives Matter protestors to wield sticks and pipes, to shoot cops in Dallas, to break windows in DC?” And I stop what I’m doing and loudly reply or think to myself, “No, no, it’s never right to bring weapons to peaceful protests,” and then someone else says, “But what about at Second Amendment rallies? Is it wrong for these folks to lawfully carry firearms while demonstrating their ability to bear arms responsibly and peacefully?”

Right there—I’m stuck. Stuck. So I think about it some more. I dig through the text of the Second Amendment; whoa, I get whirled around by the exact language I see. I turn over words and phrases:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Note that it says Congress shall make no law abridging the right of the people peacefully to assemble. That means the federal government can’t make a law that prevents us from gathering peacefully in a public place. It doesn’t say a state can’t make such a law; nor does it say Congress can’t make a law that prohibits your ability to gather as a violent mob; indeed, when you march in D.C. or elsewhere, you must obtain the proper permits and follow limits the police and the authorities set on time, place and weapons. So when the Women’s March happened in D.C., we headed into town knowing we couldn’t bring sticks with our signs or weapons or much of anything other than our pretty pink hats and our walking shoes.

The Second Amendment talks about our right to bear arms. The text says:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

When I read this, I wonder if the First Amendment trumps the Second because it comes first. Yeah, that’s not the most analytical of thoughts, but what happens if you want to exercise your right to bear arms, but you also want to do so while exercising your right to peacefully assemble? Do we think we can gather as a crowd to protest a statue peacefully while also being armed to the teeth?

See, I get lost in the minutiae sometimes. It’s the curse of the time I spent in Professor Belz’s Constitutional History classes at University of Maryland; it’s the side effect of surviving Professor Devin’s Socratic lectures at William and Mary. I turn it over in my mind until I get turned upside down; and then I search for an open door that will guide me out of the chaos that is public discourse in Twenty-First Century America.

Then I eat a tuna sandwich and receive a text from my daughter: Mom, practice is over at 5, you can pick me up outside the band room . . . and I come back to reality. I’m a mother, and Charlottesville harbors the university I want and hope this daughter of mine can attend in four years. UVA, after all, is a good university—and it’s seventy miles away from me. I look up to education. I view the hallowed halls of its campuses as sacred places, and sacred places should be safe ones.

But it’s not just my child that should be safe. And it’s not just universities that should be safe. All our children should be able to walk up and down a town square in safety—just as all our young adults should be able to walk to class without being threatened by weapons-wielding men and women.

Which brings me back to the headlines I keep perusing, and the questions that keep interrupting thoughts. And I realize, as I finish feeding the cat leftovers from the tuna can, that all of this is a distraction from the larger issue. Don’t get me wrong. Let me be crystal clear: no one should ever bring a weapon to a peaceful protest. And all protests should be peaceful. There’s no ifs ands or buts here. I condemn all violent protest. Period. I particularly condemn those who march under the aegis of rhetoric that is in and of itself violent: white supremacy. But those who march for Black Lives Matter should not carry weapons on their marches either.

But this is all a distraction.

From the bigger things that bedevil all of us.

Some of these things seem small, but they’re not. Like today, I asked my son how his lunch was, and he said he forgot it.

“What did you do?” I asked.

“Well, I bought it.”

“You bought it?”

“Yeah, she said to bring in money tomorrow.” My son looked at me. He knew I was upset.

“That’s gonna cost me ten dollars,” I said. And I sighed and walked away. Because you can’t explain budgets in any manner that takes hold with an eleven year old. But any adult reading this, anyone who’s trying to raise a family in America knows what I speak of. What little we have doesn’t go far, does it?

A lot of us don’t have a lot. The top one percent of Americans now own more wealth than the bottom ninety percent. Which is to say: America is riven by inequality.

Desperation and separation act as the fuel for our violent civic dialogue. Families are saddled with debt, but during the 2008 Recession, and other times throughout our history, corporations, not individuals, were bailed out of financial ruin. Corporations poison the water we drink, the air we breathe; yet wealthy shareholders, rather than workers, reap the unholy profits sowed by these sometimes legal corporate endeavors.

Jobs are “outsourced” to laborers working in other countries under slave-like conditions; robots, not Americans, fill newly-created American jobs; and corporations are hired to run enemies down in countries near and far—all in the name of waging an endless war against terror. A war that has few boundaries and no stated parameters for ending is also a war that exhibits little sympathy for the lives of innocent bystanders.

Meanwhile, the oceans grow more acidic; the trees in our forests, more scarce. Our scientists warn that our use of natural resources is killing the very earth we live in and is threatening the future of our children and our children’s children. Our very way of living is a violent one that leaves destruction in its wake, and still we carry on and march for or against statues erected to honor men who died eight score and many more years ago.

And yet our elected leaders understand very little of this. After all, they serve with no term limits, nor do they observe any form of meaningful limitation on who can influence them. Corporations are not citizens, and yet they sprawl out across the political landscape like teenagers in a frat common area, grabbing what they can from those who represent us in Congress. Both parties are, in short, corrupt. Each of the two major parties serves the corporate lobby. Each keeps the War on Terror going; each feeds from the same vat that feeds the rich and powerful.

We, as individual humans, are better, more important, more precious, more beautiful, more meaningful—than any of our ruling institutions. We each have the light of God within us, and this light can and does shine no matter how dark our institutions turn. We must remember what unites us.

We are unified by love. We are unified by the blood that runs in our veins and by the light that flows like living waters through our souls. We must seek the light that each one of us, as sons and daughters of the One, possesses. And we must demand that our institutions serve us, as individual beings with light, rather than the non-human, inanimate monster that is the modern corporation. We cannot allow ourselves to be distracted by old statues, or by ignorant men touting Swastikas, or by angry but misguided minorities who bring weapons to the public meeting place.

We must wake up. And join together in love and in light. And once we do this, we must demand that our institutions follow us into the light and take a route that will lead us to live in peace and in harmony with ourselves and with the Mother that is our Earth.

We—and Earth—deserve no less.

## Judicial Review and Stephen Miller’s Usurpation

I know a lot of people who have served in the military; I also know a lot who have practiced law. I, in fact, practiced law for several years. In both professions, you have to follow certain rules. You have to keep in mind that the law is above your needs or wants–you must behave with a sincere respect for the law of the land, and you must understand that your actions and words carry meaning. Last night, Michael Flynn resigned as National Security Advisor after reports emerged that he engaged in improper (even unlawful) contact with Russian officials prior to his appointment.

This weekend, another Trump appointee, Stephen Miller, went on several talk shows and advocated that judges have no authority to review the President’s orders relating to national security measures. Speaking on the validity of Trump’s Executive Order 13769 “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States,” Miller said, “the powers of the President to protect our country are very substantial and will not be questioned.” This comment flies in the face of 200 years of constitutional authority. Marbury v. Madison, 5 U.S. 137 (1803) (which all law students study in the first year of law school) provides for judicial review of executive actions.

Our Republican system is built upon the proposition (as stated in the Federalist papers) that no branch of government–and no one person who is appointed or elected to office–is supreme. Alexander Hamilton wrote the following:

If it be said that the legislative body are themselves the constitutional judges of their own powers, and that the construction they put upon them is conclusive upon the other departments, it may be answered, that this cannot be the natural presumption, where it is not to be collected from any particular provisions in the Constitution. It is not otherwise to be supposed, that the Constitution could intend to enable the representatives of the people to substitute their will to that of their constituents. It is far more rational to suppose, that the courts were designed to be an intermediate body between the people and the legislature, in order, among other things, to keep the latter within the limits assigned to their authority. Fed. No. 78.

The courts check the power of the legislature, in other words, from substituting its will over the rights and liberties of the people. Hamilton viewed the judiciary as possessing alone the power to judge the constitutionality of actions taken by other branches. The Judiciary possessed no power over sword or purse, and in fact relied upon the executive branch to enforce its decisions. Fed. No. 78. While weak in some respects, the independence of the Judiciary meant that it alone could be trusted to remain impartial in disputes involving other branches of government, as well as the people who elected the legislative bodies and executive leaders. In Federalist No. 80, Hamilton held that the only proper place to hear a dispute between a citizen and the United States was in fact in federal courts.

Ever since the first cases brought before the Supreme Court under the leadership of John Marshall (who was the Chief Justice when Marbury was decided), the powers of the court to conduct judicial review have expanded, but courts have accepted that it is their duty to state what the law was:

“It is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is. Those who apply the rule to particular cases must of necessity expound and interpret that rule.” Marbury, U.S. (1 Cranch) at 177.

Eighteen years later, the Court ruled that it may review state court civil cases, if they arise under federal or constitutional law in Martin v. Hunter’s Lessee. See 14 U.S. 304 (1816); see also Cohens v. Virginia, 19 U.S. 264 (1821) (applying same principle of judicial review to state criminal cases). The concept of judicial review was interpreted even more broadly in 1958, when the Court found that it had the power to overrule any state action, executive, judicial or legislative it deemed to be unconstitutional. See Cooper v. Aaron, 358 U.S. 1 (1958).

Said a unanimous court in Cooper:

“[Marbury] . . . declared the basic principle that the federal judiciary is supreme in the exposition of the law of the Constitution, and that principle has ever since been respected by the Court and the country as a permanent and indispensable feature of our constitutional system“. 258 U.S. 1, 18.

Some conservative scholars, like former U.S. Attorney General Edwin Meese, have questioned the Court’s scope in Cooper. According to Meese, the Court took too much power to itself by declaring that it alone could interpret the Constitution, and perhaps Stephen Miller was echoing Meese to an extent, but there’s a far cry from arguing in what is still a minority opinion lacking any legal precedence that the Judicial branch is not the sole arbiter of the law and stating that “the powers of the President will not be questioned” and are not subject to judicial review.

At most, Meese argued that the Judiciary is not the sole arbiter of the law, but must share such powers with the other branches of government.[1] Miller takes it much farther than Meese ever did. If Miller’s position is correct, then the current President can write whatever Executive Orders he wishes, and the courts have no authority to review orders relating to national security. But perhaps the administration truly believes in executive powers so vast, so overarching, that a President may simply throw out two hundred years of precedence by fiat. What would a serious constitutional scholar like Edwin Meese have to say about such an argument?

I don’t think Meese would take it very seriously (but I may be wrong). And as it stands, the judiciary will be taking a hard look at the President’s Executive Order banning certain individuals from seven Muslim countries. The President and his advisors will also be taking a look at whether their efforts to protect the national security are constitutionally supported. Scholars will come down on both sides of the issue before the courts, but eventually, the constitutionality of the ban will be resolved by someone other than the man who signed the Order; in other words, the judiciary will rule on it.

Until then, we will see the President interview and vet possible replacements for Michael Flynn. Hopefully, the President will appoint a National Security Advisor who understands the rule of law, and who will accept that he or she must submit to it. The National Security Advisor, and the national security of our nation, is not above the rule of law.

And Miller will hopefully learn that his statements on judicial inferiority to the executive branch and to the head of the executive branch are plain wrong. Even the most adamant conservative legal scholars comprehend that the Judiciary is at a minimum equal to the Executive branch on issues of constitutional interpretation.

We as citizens, meanwhile, must educate ourselves and we must remain alert. Usurpation of the rule of law and disrespect for basic constitutional principles like judicial review are in play under the current administration. We must not stand idly by. It is axiomatic that courts have the power to strike down actions taken by the Executive branch or the legislative branch that are inconsistent with the federal Constitution. It is also axiomatic that appointed or elected officials must obey the law of the land—and the courts (not the President alone) determine what this law is.

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[1] For a discussion on the invalidity of judicial supremacy, please see http://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2015/02/14410/. “It is true that Chief Justice John Marshall’s opinion for the Court in Marbury holds that ‘it is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is,’ and that Marshall argued that this duty requires the courts to treat the Constitution as a law of superior obligation, giving preference to it when it conflicts with the acts of the legislature or executive. At no point in the Court’s opinion, however, does Marshall claim that the Court ‘gets the final say on whether laws passed by Congress or implemented by the executive branch are constitutional,’ as Malor wrongly claims.

“On the contrary, Marshall’s argument points to the very thing that Malor is so eager to deny: namely, a legitimate authority in the elected branches to be guided by their own interpretations of the Constitution in the exercise of their own powers. The ‘framers of the Constitution,’ Marshall wrote, ‘contemplated that instrument as a rule for the government of courts, as well as of the legislature.’ If, however, the Constitution is equally a rule for legislatures as well as for courts, then the former have, no less than the latter, an obligation to act according to their best understanding of it, regardless of what the other branches may say.