Chris Bodenner
Chris Bodenner
Chris Bodenner is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

Track of the Year: ‘Hard Times Come Again No More’

A reader, Rick Jones, writes:

This video of Stephen Foster’s great song “Hard Times Come Again No More” seems to tie together some of Notes’ recent themes. It’s a cover (the song was written in 1856) by the Familia McGarrigle (including a teenage Rufus and Martha) and it speaks to coming troubles and the need for perseverance that Fallows has been evoking in his writing.

If you have a version of “Hard Times” that particularly resonates with you and have a memory associated with it, please send us a note: hello@theatlantic.com. (The McGarrigle/Wainwright clan also did a version of Stephen Foster’s sunnier “Better Times Are Coming.”) Update from a reader who flags a rendition of “Hard Times” from Mavis Staples:

From another reader, Peter:

What a great song, unfortunately, it seems timeless. I first heard it in 1981, sung by the outstanding Chapel Hill string band The Red Clay Ramblers. Their wonderful harmony singing frames the song with a warmth that counterbalances the bleakness of the lyrics you can here them here.

Another reader recommends a version that isn’t available on YouTube:

My favorite is somewhere in my library of Bill Frisell bootlegs, but it’s something along these lines. I’m fascinated by songs like this that are just so old and remain in the repertoire. For example, “St. James Infirmary” is based on “The Rake’s Lament,” an 18th century British naval song. It’s also the parent of “Streets of Laredo,” the Johnny Cash tune. That’s nuts!

One more reader, Sydney:

Greetings from just south of Raleigh, NC, as I read all the news I missed last night because often, playing with babies beats knowing more details of terrorism. When I saw your post on “Hard Times” I immediately thought of the Yo Yo Ma and James Taylor cover that I had on repeat this time last year while waiting for morning sickness to magically disappear in the second trimester of a twin pregnancy, but instead got more pains and swelling. I resigned myself to only focusing on seeking the good in life, that hard times would pass.

Proud to say I’ve now got two happy healthy baby girls, one of whom wants to keep me company now. Keep up the great work.

The covers keep arriving from long-time readers, namely Barbara:

It has been so great to see the McGarrigle thread spin into Stephen Foster land with “Hard Times Come Again No More.” I like sentimental songs and apparently have a high tolerance for pathos, especially if rhyming lines are involved. I thought the song’s Wikipedia entry, describing it as a “parlor song,” was a nice touch that avoided the judgement implicit in “sentimental,” even if the judgement is right on target.

The song is one of my favorites from Foster, who is one of my favorite composers. I learned to play some of his songs on the piano from a tattered copy of a collection of his work. I learned a lot of other folk songs and sentimental favorites from an even more tattered hardcover copy of the Fireside Book of Folk Songs I still have, although the book now begins halfway through the song “Cockles and Mussels” and ends partway through the index, with no hardcovers in sight. (I was able to get another copy of the book, covers and all, when a family member passed away, but I still play from the spineless copy that opens flat and stays open.)

I am not an accomplished pianist and I’ve grown increasingly rusty. Early in elementary school, I only progressed partway through John Thompson’s Modern Course for the Piano: The Second Grade Book: Something New Every Lesson. The “something new” that killed my progress was syncopation, in the form of dotted eighth notes in a version of James A. Bland’s “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny.” (I understood the mathematics just fine, but my mind had decided on a rhythm that seemed pleasing to my fingers, and no amount of repetition and no lack of a gold star got me to play the song correctly. After weeks of intractable stubbornness on my part and the part of the only piano teacher in town, we parted ways. I did take more lessons in high school when the wife of a new music teacher at the central school offered them. I explained my history, and we started out lessons with Bach. It was more successful, but I stopped taking lessons when I left for college.

Anyway, I liked all the versions your readers provided; it was interesting to hear a range of interpretations. I like Emmylou Harris’s performance of “Hard Times Come Again No More.” I don't know if the cut I listen to is online, but in this video from a concert, she says that “this is probably the oldest song in my repertoire.”

The performance of “Hard Times” I play most often is by Thomas Hampson, because I like to listen to the album in the car and am very fond of his “Beautiful Dreamer.” (The album is American Dreamer: Songs of Stephen Foster, and performers include Jay Ungar on violin, Molly Mason on guitar, and David Alpher on piano.)

Unlike some other covers, Hampson’s doesn’t sound like he’s actually been through hard times. His performance instead fits the Wikipedia description; I imagine he sings the song just as a gentleman with a good voice would have done years ago in some parlor, playing piano with more finesse than I have and trying to impress the guests at a party, particularly the woman he has his eye on. The rendition is smooth, and if you enjoy Hampson’s voice, you may not realize how awful some parts of the lyrics are. The chorus is what makes the song great, not the verses.

Of all the versions, the Mavis Staples cover is my new favorite.

Thanks everyone!

Here’s a final update, from the reader who started this “Hard Times” series. Rick indicated in our email exchange that he was a long-time reader of The Dish, the blog I helped edit for seven years—three of which were at The Atlantic. If you ever followed the blog, Rick’s retrospective here is poignant:

  • Laura Swann

    The Surprising Revolt at the Most Liberal College in the Country

    Activists are disrupting lectures to protest "white supremacy," but many students are taking steps to stop them.

  • ‘Trump Hasn't Been the Wrecking Ball I Anticipated’

    In the wake of the shocking results of November’s election, readers in Notes had a robust discussion titled, “Will Trump Voters and Clinton Voters Ever Relate?” One of the most revealing and contentious entries came from a Trump supporter who “voted for the middle finger, the wrecking ball.” He began by countering some common stereotypes about Trump voters:

    I have a Masters degree. My kids go to public school with kids of all races, colors, and creeds. Our neighborhood has immigrant families, mixed-race families, minorities, and same-sex couples. Our sports teams are multi-cultural, diverse, and play beautifully together, on and off the field. I have neither the time, energy, or room in my heart for hatred, bigotry, or racism.

    His was a protest vote:

    I am tired of the machine rolling over us—all of us. The Clinton machine, the Republican machine, the big media, investment banking, hedge fund carrying interest, corporatist, lobbying, influence peddling, getting elected and immediately begin fundraising for the next election machine—they can all kiss my ass.

    Maybe Trump won’t do a thing to change or fix any of it. Hillary definitely would not have changed any of it.

    Many readers disagreed here. Another one, Susan, emailed this week asking, “Could we have an update from the guy who ‘voted for the middle finger, the wrecking ball’? I’d be very interested to know what he thinks of the first two months of President Trump.”

    I actually wondered the same thing in early February, when I emailed the wrecking ball reader to see if his views on Trump has shifted during the presidential transition and his first few weeks in office. Here’s the reader’s verdict on February 9 (followed by a reply to Susan’s request):

    It’s too early to tell, really—kind of like calling the Falcons to win after their first touchdown, right? I think Trump is still too combative and his messaging is awful at times—a lot of the time—but so far he is the guy (ass?) he’s been through the entire run. Trump thinks of himself as an executive in the most stringent application of the word—the buck stops here, the buck begins here, the buck is always here—but he’ll that learn running a company and the country are not the same thing, not matter how much I sometimes like the idea of someone “running the government like a business.”

    I wish Trump had what we call down here—the land of obesity, fireworks, and Flannery O’Connor-inspired realities—a “pull-back guy.”

    See, we love our college football down in the buckle of the Bible Belt. We love to watch our Clemson Tiger defensive coordinator, Brent Venables, go crazy on the sidelines. To handle him, they have to get a designated staffer be the “pull-back guy”—grabbing Venables around his britches and pulling him back off of the field so he doesn’t draw a penalty.

  • Not Wanting to Be a Token in Tech

    Two readers are very wary of hiring practices in Silicon Valley that strongly take gender into account. Here’s Sally:

    This article [“Why Is Silicon Valley So Awful to Women?”] refers a couple times to people saying that hiring women or minorities may “lower the bar” as some kind of evidence of bias. But usually when people say that, they are referring to using gender as a criteria for hiring. When you do that, you have to give less weight to technical merit.

    And indeed, towards the end of the article, using such criteria is advocated. Whenever you set a “goal” (i.e. quota) that 40 percent of your workforce should have quality X when X has nothing to do with your ability, you are going to get people with lower-than-average ability. What’s worse, you have a situation where those in the company with quality X have less ability than those without that quality, which only reinforces the stereotypes about those people—which is unfair to those Xs who are competent.

    Personally, I’d much rather companies focus on treating their female employees equally than worry about increasing the number of female employees. But that’s just me.

    It’s also Carla Walton, a female engineer in HBO’s Silicon Valley:

    More of Carla vs. Jared here. This next reader has an outlook and attitude similar to Sally’s:

    I’m a senior tech executive in Silicon Valley who happens to be female. I also have a male name, which makes initial introductions interesting. (“Oh, I thought you would be a man...”) If it matters, in addition to leading an R&D technical team at work, I’m on [the board of a computer engineering department], and a startup advisor [for a prominent venture capital firm].

    I have a lot to say about this article. On one side, I am burned out on the “women in tech” topic. I want to be included/recruited because I totally kill it and always bring my A-game—and never ever ever because I am a woman.

  • Becoming ‘Everyone’s Little Sister’ to Deal With Sexism

    A reader with a Ph.D. in physics has been working in the tech industry for many years, but she’s struggled to cope with the huge gender imbalance at the start-ups she’s worked for. She feels she can’t fully be herself—or a mother:

    When I entered the office for my interview, I saw every head in the glass-enclosed conference room pop up and look over at me. I’ve trained myself to have a sort of small, permanent smile plastered on my face, and I hoped, as the room was looking me over, that my smile looked natural, approachable, and genuine.

    That is the persona I’ve settled on: Approachable and genuine. Everyone’s little sister.

    In that way, I can inhabit a special place, still allowed to be feminine, someone everyone roots for but no one is sexually attracted to, or intellectually threatened by. Everyone wants his kid sister to win. Everyone will defend his little sister from bullies.

    Sure, you may forget she is a girl; you may leave her out of some things because you forget about her; but you are not going forget her all together. And you certainly aren’t going to want your friends to sleep with her.

  • When a Twin Disappears

    A reader revives our collection of miscarriage stories with an uncommon case of her own—two cases, in fact:

    Thank you so much for the series on abortion you carry, Chris—turning the abstract (which is very easy to judge, from a distance) into real-life stories, of real-life people. The many stories exemplify that there is no “one-size-fits-all” in this matter—that people’s lives tend to have many nuances that, when judged from a distance, are easily overlooked.

    I have two healthy children, but it took us years to conceive, and we were helped by fertility treatments. [See many infertility stories from readers here.] My first pregnancy ended in an early miscarriage, around the 6-to-8-week mark. Same for my third pregnancy.

    In both cases I never felt like I lost a child; rather, I grieved because of the missed opportunity. Fertility treatments are usually like that. In many cases, you need several trials before having one that takes.

    Early in my second pregnancy, the doctor could see I was pregnant with twins, with one of the twins showing delayed development. The doctor told me to just wait and see what happened, and so I did.

    In our next check-up, we saw that one of the twins had vanished.

  • When Your Parents Finally See You as an Adult

    Last year, Julie Beck wrote a popular piece centered on the question, “When Are You Really an Adult?” She went beyond the biological and legal answers to delve into the more subjective realms of culture and personal experience. The many markers of adulthood were then illustrated in the variety of stories we collected from readers—clustered around commonplace themes of financial independence, parenthood, and divorce, but also less common experiences such as losing a parent at a young age, rape, and dodging the wrath of a dictatorship.

    This week, we posed a related question to readers: “When does childhood end?”—and, more interestingly, “When did you become an adult in your parents’ eyes?,” a version that adds a layer of subjectivity to an already subjective topic. Here’s a response from Terri:

    When I was 11, my mother died. My father had become blind a few years before, from a rare form of glaucoma. He had no choice but to allow me to do things that are normally done by an adult, such as budgeting and paying bills, cooking and cleaning, and other various things. He had to talk to me in an honest way, and make me understand things and rely on my judgement in lots of matters. Other adults did too. I was never a child again after my mother died and my dad knew it.

    Another reader’s mother also died at a pretty young age:

    I became an adult when my mother died and my dad started dating four months later. I was 20 years old. Once he had a new woman in his life (whom he is still married to now) and essentially a new family, I was out. We had really started to be at odds the year before, when I had started to do things my way instead of his way. He had pretty much taken for granted that I could make it in this world without his advice or anything.

    For this next reader, it was boarding school:

    I’m not sure the end of childhood is the sort of thing that one can pinpoint; seems to me there were rather a number of distinct rites of passage. The first was when I went to boarding school, around age 10. When my parents dropped me off that first day, I knew I was on my own. Calling home to say they should come get you was not an option; my parents made this pretty clear, but it was not necessary. I knew.

    Another reader had to go abroad to step out of childhood:

    When I was an exchange student, my father came down to visit. There I was, living independently in a foreign country at 17. I could speak the language fluently and had to navigate us for him.

    George also left the country to become an adult:

        • Getting the Most Out of Old Age

          The initial wave of reader response to our question “Is a long life really worth it?” was overwhelming “meh, not so much.” But since then, many sexagenarians, septuagenarians, octogenarians, and nonagenarians have emailed more enthusiastic outlooks on old age. Here’s Jim:

          A thought-provoking discussion, but it really misses the key point. I turn 65 in a couple of months, but I don’t expect to “retire” at 65—or ever. I’m fit and healthy and having the greatest fun of my life at the head of a fast-growing business. In a quarter century, if still alive, I might have to slow down a bit, but there will still be something useful for me to do.

          The founding pastor of our church has poor hearing and is almost blind, but a few weeks ago he preached a great sermon to celebrate his 100th birthday. He still contributes in other ways as well.

          Not everyone can continue working, but there is a huge need for volunteers in areas that do not require physical agility. Unless totally senile—and that’s something that will never happen to most of us—we all have something to offer.

          Maggie is a quarter century older than Jim but has a very similar view:

          Life isn’t over because I’m not longer “useful.” I’m 90 and have spent the last decade trying to be okay with not always being the helping hand. Though my greatest joy has come from knowing I have touched another’s life by being helpful, I have to remember that I am still touching people’s lives as long as I am alive. I’m so pleasantly surprised that people want to be around me.

          I was pretty grim when I had to stop driving because a slight accident damaged the car beyond repair. My health also gave way and I was briefly hospitalized. It was a big adjustment. But now I am walking, exercising at the gym once a week, taking part in demonstrations, and forgetting about how old I am. I don’t see any other options.

        • When a Long Life Is Too Much to Bear

          Living a long life seems the obvious goal for most people, and many of them, like Dylan Thomas, raged against the dying of the light. Others—like the transhumanists that Olga featured recently—want to transcend death entirely.

          But the vast majority of the readers who responded to our note asking “Is a Long Life Really Worth It?” answered “nope, not really.” Genie is in the “maybe” camp:

          Well, like most things, the answer is not a simple yes or no; it depends—on so many factors, some of which we can control (e.g. not smoking) and can’t control (e.g. our genetic make-up). If you’re in good health physically and have all your faculties and some purposeful work or hobby, or just something you really enjoyed doing, then maybe it might be a good idea to live a long life. But those are a lot of ifs.

          Another reader, John, looks to human connections:

          Health is essential to making survival good, but it also helps to have a caring partner, for companionship and support. I am biased, because at 81, I have my health and a good wife. I’d like to live past 100 if these conditions remain. But if I become disabled, chronically ill or alone, life is unlikely worth it.

          Rita has a bleaker outlook:

          Looking at my genetics, I’m starting to think I may live a long time. I’m not yet 70, but I can probably expect to go until 95 at least.

          This doesn’t fill me with joy. Who’s going to look after me when my eyesight starts to crap out and I get weaker? Where’s the money going to come from to continue to pay my bills? These are not minor questions. Their answers, as far as I can see, are “nobody” and “nowhere.”

          And anyway, it’s not as if I can look forward to hiking in the desert or exploring foreign cities in my extreme old age. Nor will many of us be directing films or conducting research in our nineties. What most of us can anticipate is day after day staring at a TV set, wondering if anyone is coming for a visit.

        • America by Air: Powering Homes With Molten Salt

          Our collection of power plants for this photo series keeps growing: a nuclear one over Michigan, another one along the Cali coastline, a bunch of wind turbines over Colorado, a pair of coal-fired plants in Iowa, solar panels with crop circles in Arizona—and now a massive solar plant in Nevada that looks like a moon base or a SETI satellite:

          Roberto T. Martins

          The stunning image was sent by Roberto, a reader in Georgia:

          This is the Crescent Dunes Solar Energy project, in the Nevada desert, as seen on a flight from Denver to San Francisco last November. I had just heard about it on NPR when I saw it right under our flight path. (If I hadn’t listened, I would have no idea what it was.)

          Here’s the NPR story that he’s likely referencing. It provides some fascinating details into the unique nature of the Crescent Dunes solar plant, which can generate electricity for up to 10 hours even after the sun goes down. What’s the secret? Molten salt:

          “It actually looks like water. It’s clear — it flows like water,” Smith says. He says the molten salt has to remain above 450 degrees Fahrenheit to stay liquid. It’s sent up the tower to the glowing tip, where it’s heated further. When the salt comes back down, it is 1,050 degrees. The molten salt is used to make steam to power a generator.

          Here’s a closer view of the plant from Roberto, with the central tower casting a sundial-like shadow across the desert floor:

          The plant generates enough electricity to power 75,000 Nevada homes. But it’s had some blemishes: “During a test [of Crescent Dunes last year], observers recorded a video of birds flying into heat from the mirrors and being incinerated.” The group Basin and Range Watch is now suing the agency to get more information on the dangers to wildlife. But flaming fowl isn’t unique to Crescent Dunes; the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System in California is another example of a broader problem for solar plants. Here’s an explanation from Emma Roller via our archives:

          First, insects are drawn to the reflective light of the solar mirrors. That draws small, insect-eating birds, which in turn draw larger predatory birds. The rays of the mirrors’ reflected light produces temperatures from 800 degrees to 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Any animal caught in the intense glare of the mirror’s rays may catch fire and plummet toward the ground, or spontaneously combust altogether.

          That beam of fiery death is called a “solar flux.” The bigger threat to birds, however, comes from wind turbines. As my colleague Clare Foran noted, “Research published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Biological Conservation [in 2013] estimated that between 140,438 and 327,586 birds — or a mean of 234,012 — are killed annually due to collisions with turbines across the U.S.” Petroleum is another big danger:

        • Why Shouldn't War Vets Get Weed for Their Wounds?

          A Kuwaiti oil field set afire by retreating Iraqi troops during Operation Desert Storm on March 1, 1991 (JO1 Gawlowicz / Department of Defense / Wikimedia)

          Spurred by our collection of stories from readers who used marijuana as a substitute for prescription opioids, another reader writes:

          I am a totally and permanently service-connected, disabled Marine veteran with Gulf War Illnesses. I was an infantryman in the first war in Iraq and spent a good deal of time in and around the burning oil fields. I was also dosed with long-term, low-dose nerve agents from the “superplume” of oil smoke and chemical weapons inadvertently made airborne by coalition forces during demolition while I was aboard ship in the Persian Gulf after the ground combat had ended.

          After my four years of active duty I attended college and earned a civil engineering degree. I worked for a few years as a consulting civil engineer for a Fortune 500 engineering firm until the symptoms of my illnesses became too much for me to continue gainful employment as a civil engineer.

          My medical care as an engineer was very good, since I had very good private insurance—until I could no longer work. By that point, I had been awarded a 50-percent disability rating and the VA stepped in to cover my treatment. As my illnesses progressed, I became less and less active and more and more dependent upon the 13 different pharmaceutical medications and three pharmaceutical inhalers the VA doctors prescribed to me for daily use. My symptoms/illnesses used to include:

        • Abortion as a ‘Technology From God to Prevent Suffering’

          June 4, 1965

          The Zika emergency—thankfully now in the past but still without a vaccine—spread throughout 60 countries and affected thousands of pregnant women in 2015 and 2016. The disease is most dangerous for pregnant women due to the risk of birth defects as severe as microcephaly, when the fetus forms a small head and underdeveloped brain. To prevent that gruesome fate for their baby, pregnant women with Zika often turn to abortion (though the procedure is illegal in many of the countries most affected by the virus).

          Before Zika, there was the rubella epidemic of 1964 to 1965, when an estimated 12.5 million Americans acquired the disease (also known as German measles). Similar to Zika, rubella’s symptoms for most adults are mild—a rash and a low-grade fever that lasts two or three days. But for a pregnant woman and her fetus, rubella is “very dangerous,” according the CDC, resulting in birth defects ranging from deafness to heart problems to mental disabilities. Also like Zika, rubella is often asymptomatic, thus many pregnant women don’t realize they’re carrying the virus until it’s too late. In the 1960s, prior to the release of the rubella vaccine in 1969 and the Roe decision in 1973 that made abortion legal nationwide, a small number of doctors illegally performed the procedure for pregnant women with rubella.

          One of those women is Bette, an Atlantic reader who had a second-trimester abortion in March 1971. She was a 24-year-old married Christian at the time, and she frames her abortion story as “God’s will for my family”:

          My husband and I celebrated my pregnancy with friends on Thanksgiving Day in 1970. Although the pregnancy was a bit of a surprise, we were delighted to welcome a baby into the world.

          I was teaching fifth grade at the time, and I’ll never forget the moment when a student walked up to my desk and said he didn’t feel very well. When I saw the rash on his face, I flashed back to a terrible photograph I had seen in a magazine in my obstetrician’s office the week before. It was of a “Rubella baby,” and the caption said “Bobby’s mother recovered from German measles in 3 days. Bobby wasn’t so lucky.”

          I didn’t know what that meant exactly, but I later found out the way scientists realized what the Rubella virus did to a fetus was when someone connected delivery-room personnel coming down with the three-day measles to a baby with severe birth defects. Although the mother recovers in three days, the baby stays sick throughout the remaining time of gestation and is still contagious at birth.

          I had almost forgotten about that student and the magazine picture a couple of weeks later when I got up and saw a very slight rash on my own face.

        • Is the U.S. Becoming a Banana Republic?

          David Frum is worried it will happen under President Trump. “The fancy term is authoritarian kleptocracy,” Frum says in a long and enriching talk with Atlantic editor Scott Stossel last Thursday about the dangers of the Trump administration (starting at the 10:22 mark):

          The SoundCloud audio version is here. And if you haven’t yet read David’s cover story on Trump, or want to read it again in light of this discussion, here’s the link. If you prefer to listen to it on the go or while doing chores around the house, here’s the audio version:

          This reader really liked the piece:

          I’d just add a philosophical aspect, which is that if Obama was our first black president, then Trump is our first postmodern president. In postmodernity all truth is local, thus if you deconstruct any attempt at claiming an overarching truth, you’ll find a power grab.

          This particularly applies to Trump’s relation with the media. If the media calls out one of his lies, it is seen by him and his supporters as not truth but a competing narrative—or, in today’s terms, #FakeNews. And so Trump has weaponized language, and any attempts at restraining him through shaming, appeals to tradition, and appeals to logic fall flat.

        • Opting for Weed Over Opioids: Your Stories

          Sarah Zhang recently looked at a pathbreaking effort by James Feeney to expand the use of medical marijuana in the U.S. He’s surgeon in Connecticut conducting a clinical trial to compare the use of marijuana and opioids when it comes to treating acute pain, rather than chronic pain. Here’s Sarah:

          That distinction—acute pain from an injury—[is] an important one. A small body of evidence suggests that medical marijuana is effective for chronic pain, which persists even after an injury should have healed and for which opioids are already not a great treatment. But now Feeney wants to try medical marijuana for acute pain, where opioids have long been a go-to drug.

          That tendency to prescribe pills has fueled the opioid addiction crisis in the U.S., thus increasing the need for non-addictive alternatives like marijuana—now legal for medical use in 28 states and for recreational use in eight (plus D.C. for both). The rules for when doctors can prescribe pot to their patients vary state to state, but those rules rarely apply to acute, short-term pain. That’s exactly what the following reader experienced, and cannabis was a godsend for her:

          I had a bilateral mastectomy, then chemo, then radiation on both sides, since I had cancer in both breasts. It was a huge radiation field and a little over a third of the way through my skin was so badly burned that the two old soft-cotton tee shirts I wore to bed were stuck to my skin and bloody when I woke up in the morning. It was so bad that I had to stand in a warm shower for a long time to loosen the connection between my flesh and shirt to get it off.

          A friend brought me some THC-laced cookies and that solved the problem. No pain, as well as no anxiety. I nibbled on them for about three weeks. They were very strong and each cookie got me through several days. I stopped eating them when the pain went away, and I had a few left over that I didn’t use.

          This next reader, in contrast, has chronic pain, but he only uses cannabis for the short-term bursts of peak pain:

          I am a 53-year-old, college-educated white male working as a software engineer in the Silicon Valley since high school. I have been a recreational user of cannabis for most of my adult life, as I prefer it over alcohol—which I drink only when I can’t get cannabis.

          I have a chronic foot condition for which my doctor has prescribed OxyContin, as well as hydrocodone for peak pain. My use of Oxy has been consistent, but I was using the hydrocodone more than my doctor was happy with. Of course, once I was put on the opioids, I could no longer use alcohol.

          Two years ago I obtained a recommendation for medical cannabis and have been able to significantly reduce/eliminate my hydrocodone use by relying on cannabis for peak pain. I have no negative side effects and no longer have to worry about running out of pills.

          There are several things that surprised me about using cannabis as medicine:

        • When Child Abuse Involves Guns

          It’s been a year since we ran this reader series, which included a wide range of first encounters with guns—from fond memories of family bonding and summer camp to dark memories of domestic violence, burglary, and rape. A reader discovered the series this morning and shares a traumatic story from her childhood:

          While sitting on the floor playing Monopoly with my older brother and younger sister, the game dragged on and on, and my sister and I wanted to call it quits. But my brother was winning, and wanted to win more, so he insisted we keep playing.

          We didn’t hear our dad enter the house (because we automatically froze whenever he came home because no matter what we were doing, we pissed him off). He grabbed a rifle from the gun rack, held it to my sister’s head and screamed: “You want her dead? Will that make you happy?” We screamed for him to put the rifle down, but he wouldn’t stop until he shoved it up against all our heads, repeating his same lines, while our mother begged him to put the gun away.

          “You damn kids!” he screamed. “Your mom is dying of cancer and you sit here fighting over a damn game!” Then he kicked my brother, slammed the rifle back in the rack, and drove back to the bar.

        • A Custody Battle Over Embryos

          A reader, Mimi Lee, introduces a new and rare experience to our ongoing series:

          Ten days before my wedding, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. As a doctor, I naturally freaked out and quickly arranged my own lumpectomy within 48 hours of the diagnosis. I celebrated my new marriage surrounded by friends and family, wrapped in surgical dressings.

          We returned from the honeymoon and embarked on a single round of artificial reproductive technology (ART) to preserve my fertility and our chances to build a future family. Meanwhile, I learned from a pathologist colleague that my cancer had not been completely removed, so after multiple consultations and opinions, I prepared for a mastectomy.

          Amidst this whirlwind of uncertainty over the big C, I carefully emptied vials, mixed drugs, and prepared syringes for ART—only this time, it was not for any of the thousands of patients I had cared for as an anesthesiologist who specialized, ironically enough, in fertility. The prep was for me, inspired by the hopes and dreams of my own biological motherhood once I stomped cancer out of my life.

          The ART went extremely well. At age 41, I had 18 eggs harvested. Twelve were fertilized and yielded five beautiful-looking embryos—my future babies. Two weeks after the embryos were frozen, I underwent my mastectomy.

          A year later, after acknowledging that pregnancy was contraindicated for my type of breast cancer, my husband and I scanned gestational profiles at a surrogate agency. A year after that, he told me he wanted a divorce. After we separated, I underwent two more years of legal proceedings, which amounted to a full-time job, leading to a courtroom battle for the custody of the frozen embryos. My future babies’ lives hung in the balance.

        • Fleeing Soviet Russia as a Jewish Family

          Janis Traven

          A reader, Janis, shares her family’s courageous “coming to America” story:

          It’s the little details of being “other” that creep up unexpectedly. Late last night I read Julia Ioffe’s own refugee story in The Atlantic and was brought to tears by her mention of the mineral collection in a blue cardboard box. I also had one, as a child in the 1960s, and I know it meant something to my grandparents, but I don’t know what. (It was likely some nationalistic and chauvinistic collection of natural resources; Russia has the best quartz, bauxite, etc.)

          My grandparents escaped from the Soviet Union in 1921, masqueraded as a klezmer band on the way to a gig in Bessyrabia. My father was an infant hidden in their coats. Once they got to the other side of the river, they kept going. They were able to get a visa from their interim residence in Bucharest. They arrived at Ellis Island in 1923, on the sister ship to The Titanic.

          My grandmother’s brother also left the USSR, but the rest of the family stayed. They survived the war by going east into the Caucasus and hiding. After WWII and during the Cold War, communication was limited and cryptic between my grandparents and their siblings. In 1960, my grandparents went back to the USSR to visit family and returned with a blue box of minerals for me. The whereabouts of that box is unknown, after many moves.

          Thank you to Julia for sharing her story. It is monstrous the way that respect for others has morphed into intolerance and abuse [under the new Trump administration]. It’s not my America.

          Janis also provided the following image of an American stamp that “reminds me so much of my father’s immigration photo” (seen above, posted with permission):

          From the U.S. Postal Service’s Stamp Subject Selection criteria: “The Postal Service will honor extraordinary and enduring contributions to American society, history, culture, or environment. The stamp program commemorates positive contributions to American life, history, culture, and environment; therefore, negative occurrences and disasters will not be commemorated on U.S. postage stamps.”

          After I posted the old family photo on my Facebook page, I was charmed that my nephews shared the post with a proud and full-throated defense of immigrants. We need more of that. They and their friends saw my nephews’ faces in my grandfather’s, and my son’s face in my grandmother’s, which was a lovely connection for them.

          The infant in the photo is my aunt, who died two weeks ago. The little boy (age 3) is my father, Boris Tuchinsky, who changed his name to Traven to avoid the quotas imposed on Jews applying for admission to medical school. Boris Tuchinsky graduated 1st in his class at NYU and was rejected for medical school. Boris Traven was admitted.

          Speaking of medical schools, reader Renie is worried that they’ll suffer under the Trump administration:

          I just got off the phone with one of my children—an administrator for a fellowship program at the medical school of a major state university. The story she told me was of tremendous fear and upheaval.

        • Is It Patronizing to Say Football Players Are Exploited?

          Daniel, a reader who describes himself as “a current football fan and an ex football player,” offers a nuanced defense of the sport:

          I played in high school, where I sustained a separated shoulder and concussion that kept me out of athletic activity for five months. I walked onto my college football team, where I sustained a second concussion.  While I have successfully healed from these injuries, I continue to deal with their aftereffects in various ways.

          Even so, it breaks my heart to see the way many concerned citizens are responding to the game today. Much has been made of the way the NCAA and the NFL exploit their athletes—a claim I find valid, to a degree. In the case of the NCAA, I find it abhorrent that athletes receive nothing in return for their service to the universities they enrich.

          The NFL is a slightly different animal, in that more effort is made to support ex-players economically, and players make salaries that allow them to live comfortably. (A caveat here: I recognize that lots of ex-NFL players have not been treated well after their playing days. This is something the league is moving to remedy. Today, it is possible for a player to be cut or retire and transition smoothly into sustainable employment.)

          But is it exploitation if the players love to play the game? We are so quick to decry the game as brutal and violent that we never ask why the players allow themselves to experience such things. Could they have agency of their own, who freely chose to come back to take the punishment year after year because the game is a joyful experience?

          This is what my experience suggests. If I could do it all over again, knowing how it would end, I would not change a thing. I am sure there are many collegiate and NFL players who would say the same thing because they love the game they play.

        • Struggling to Be a Football Fan on Super Bowl Sunday

          Fans cheer during opening night for the NFL Super Bowl 51 football game between the New England Patriots and the Atlanta Falcons at Minute Maid Park in Houston, Texas. Charlie Riedel / AP

          The following reader, Stephen, sent us a note a few days ago to revive the rich discussion we had back in the fall over the ethics of watching football:

          I am a resident of Houston. As you can guess right now, the city is getting a little hectic as we countdown to the largest sporting event on U.S. soil. There was a time when I watched every football game I could, played in multiple fantasy football leagues, and was up to date on everything football. ESPN was a regular rotation. All my free time revolved around the NFL.

          Not anymore. I am disgusted with the NFL.

          The more time goes by, the less accessibility to true fans I am seeing.  Affordability of regular season games is ludicrous. Twenty-five minutes of game time with 1.5 hours of commercials … what a waste of time.   

          The Super Bowl has become the Red Carpet of the NFL; it’s more for celebrities and non fans to be seen than for the true diehards. For crying out loud, the commercials of this event are celebrated. For such a lucrative game, they get volunteers to work and compel cities to fork over the money to host. Essentially, the NFL is paid to host the Super Bowl, not the other way around.

          I guess what I hate is how money and soap-opera type drama dominates the game. I watch many people struggle to pay bills, yet this NFL machine won’t stop consuming. All for what? What is the return?  A 20-minute game?

          Many players are treated like cattle, not human beings. They are subjected to injuries, and horrific conditions. They earn high salaries, but what is their quality of life after the game?

          I can’t stand football anymore.

          Speaking of the quality of life of ex-players, this next reader, Jeremy, digs into our debate over traumatic and long-term head injuries:

          I love football. I played through high school. I love to watch it. I just won my fantasy football league this year. But the reality of the game is becoming harder and harder for me to ignore.

          Junior Seau’s suicide, Jovan Belcher’s murder-suicide, Luke Kuechly’s big hit [seen above], and that devastating GQ article on HS football player Zac Easter … everything just keeps chipping away at my love for the game. Which is crazy because enough should have already been enough!

          But the sense of community and camaraderie among fans is what keeps me in it. And is there anything more exciting than the end of a close football game? Less than two minutes left. Your team takes the field, down a score. Then they start marching …

          The fact remains, however, that football (and to a lesser extent hockey) is the only major American sport that is actively killing its players. Baseball, basketball, and soccer players [the latter covered by readers here, and rugby here] may end up with bad knees or elbows or ankles, but they don’t routinely lose their minds as a result of playing the game as it is meant to be played. And that’s the sad reality that every football fan has to face. Is this game that we love worth it?

          And people will defend it: “Grown adults making informed decisions.” But how can you weigh the risks of losing your mind while you still have it?

          It’s just a lot. And it should be enough to say “stop.” I think that watching and contributing to the sport is wrong. But when it feels like our entire society watches and condones it, it’s hard to give up.

          Brian did:

          I went cold turkey about four years ago and haven’t watched American football at any level since then. The mounting evidence that traumatic brain injuries are a feature and not a bug became too much. I just couldn’t justify treating as entertainment a sport that systematically inflicts traumatic brain injury. I’m not sure why the fact that players more or less voluntarily participate makes any difference. All that means is that the viewer is, in effect, indirectly paying the players to harm one another for the viewer’s entertainment.

          This final reader, Jeff, is personally struggling with past injuries and emotionally struggling with whether to give up the sport completely:

          Great discussion. I have decided to give up pro football, and it was that Panthers game that pushed me over the edge. I posted a message on Facebook to that effect. All the talk from the NFL about how it was now taking concussions seriously—how, this time, things were going to be different. Yet we saw what we saw. It was too much.

          I do have a personal bias in all of this. For the past 2 1/2 years, I’ve suffered from the life-upending effects of Post Concussion Syndrome. I write this now, in fact, from another hotel room in another city not my own, seeking out the help of a Chicago doctor who may be able to help put my broken life back together. I’ve seen some of the most renowned doctors in the country. The struggle goes on.

          So, when Cam takes the hits he took [similar to the one above], I do more than wince. I get a little more nauseous than maybe I already was. It’s just too much.

          And yet. It’s still not easy. Not even close. You know how many “likes” I got on my Facebook post? Zero. Goose egg.

          I live in Charlotte. Sure, other fans were upset about Cam as well. But enough to stop cheering for the Panthers? Enough to give up football? By no means. Folks have gotten a taste of winning around here, and that’s hard to give up.

          I see it in my kids’ eyes. My wife’s chatter. Folks at my church on Sunday mornings wearing their No. 1 and No. 59 jerseys. They’re not walking away. Not happening.

          How do I explain this to my two young boys? Especially when—get this—I have not given up the college game. Somehow I’ve convinced myself it’s OK for 19-year-olds to play this violent game. This has become sort of my weird compromise, a way to not completely let go. At least for now.

        • ‘Terrorists Use Our Kindness Against Us’

          We keep getting notes from readers who have personal ties to Iran—one of the seven countries involved in Trump’s travel ban (and bolded in the table above, which was created for Uri’s illuminating piece “Where America’s Terrorists Actually Come From”). The latest testimony comes from a reader with an Iranian boyfriend:

          He graduated with a Ph.D. from a top American university in 2015. He has a one-time entry visa and is fearful of the risks involved when renewing it (the State Department can be unpredictable), so he has not traveled back to Iran since starting his Ph.D. in 2009. It has been 7+ years since he has last seen his family in person or walked the streets of his hometown of Tehran.

          He said he would only feel comfortable traveling to Iran if he had a Green Card, so he is currently in the application process. But the executive order by Trump has created havoc for him and many of his Iranian friends who are also applying for Green Cards.

          They are not threats to the United States. If anything, each of them has spent close to a quarter of their life contributing to American society through their Ph.D. research. They are the brightest and best students in Iran, many of them did their undergraduate studies at Sharif University—the Iranian equivalent of MIT. My boyfriend ranked 62nd among more than 400,000 participants on the college entrance exam.

          To treat these exceptional individuals as terror threats is a travesty, and it highlights the ignorance of the Trump Administration.

          Another reader has a very different view:

          Although I don’t have any family or even distant relatives going to or coming from any of the banned countries, if I had, I would support our nation’s decision to do what it has to in order to assure the safety of citizens. For a slight inconvenience or even a great inconvenience, the safety of my family and the families of Americans are of #1 importance. Trump seems to be the only one who had the courage to take a stand and take action on a long-overdue refugee settlement problem in our country!

          From a long-time reader and self-described “GWOT Veteran”—a military vet of the global war on terrorism:

          I gave Trump a chance because I wanted people to give Obama a chance, and my friends who voted for Trump told me they didn’t like all his rhetoric. I can live with the conservative policies. I’m a liberal, but I recognize there are consequences to elections.

          But there are numerous things Trump has done in just his first week that I disagree with.

        • ‘Without Planned Parenthood, I Would’ve Had No Option’

          With a new nomination to the Supreme Court announced last night, partisans on both sides of the abortion divide are trying to divine whether Judge Neil Gorsuch would vote to overturn abortion rights, should he get confirmed by the Senate.

          Down at the personal level, last week we received yet another compelling story for our reader series on abortion that launched a year ago. This reader, like two others before her, was among the roughly 9,000 women per year who get an abortion after the 21st week of pregnancy—close to the legal limit and the point of viability. Her fraught story is punctuated by an absentee father, a callous mother, a drug-addled boyfriend, and a kind stranger at an abortion clinic:

          I am 26 years old and completing my last year of doctoral studies in the Midwest with several honorable distinctions. Yet the other part of my life narrative includes a frightening time, when I went through the very uncertain process of choosing to have an abortion. I was just shy of 17 years old and nearly 22 weeks pregnant. No one in my family knew. And I haven’t really talked about this with anyone since I was a teen.

          The week I learned I was pregnant, I remember feeling depressed. I became worried because I couldn’t remember my last period. This happened on occasion due to feeling depressed and not eating.

          I wasn’t feeling well, so I asked my mom if it was okay if I took myself out of school to see the doctor. She said yes. I got to school and panicked after realizing that I had forgotten to get a letter to excuse myself. Thinking optimistically, I frantically wrote one and forged a signature on behalf of my mom. Of course, a teacher suspected the letter and contacted her immediately. I was kicked out of my home for forging the letter and embarrassing my mom at work.

          While staying at my boyfriend’s parents’ house, I expressed my concern and got a pregnancy test promptly. It came back positive.