In English, we say “Shhh” to mean “Quiet down.” In Yiddish, it’s “Sha.” If a nightmare sent me into inconsolable sobs, my grandmother would say, “Sha, sha, bubeleh, don’t scare yourself, it’s only a dream,” and that gave me some comfort. My grandmother was a tiny, ruthless person with biceps like Popeye’s mother. Her repertoire of comfort was limited: two lullabies (Oyfn Pipetshik and Rozhinkes Mit Mandlen), “Sha, sha, bubeleh,” and chocolate pudding (more about which later). But “any port in a storm” was the motto of my childhood, and I took what I was offered.
Now let me offer it to you, my fellow Americans, as this expensive maelstrom of an election swirls around us: Sha, sha, baby, don’t scare yourself with a bad dream.
A couple of billion dollars have been spent by the primary campaign organizations (and at least another half-billion by PACs) to work us into a frenzy. We have obliged. Some people are merely frenzied, but many have put this energy surplus to constructive use. Vast numbers have mobilized for last-minute phone-banks and door-knocking trips. Lawyers, activists, and even United Nations observers are signed up as poll-watchers, monitoring the election process.
Now, as the anxiety mounts, we’re hearing more voices predicting that Republicans will steal the election by successfully manipulating the voting and vote-counting process. People have sent me a piece by Jonathan Klate calling for a military mobilization to protect the electoral process. It is so grotesquely out-of-sync with the likely public response to the prospect of President Obama’s stationing armed troops at polling places, all I can say is: Sha, sha, baby, don’t scare yourself. My dear friend Arthur Waskow spelled it out pretty thoroughly in Sunday’s Shalom Report (the newsletter of The Shalom Center, where I have the honor of serving as President):
Let the TV of this proposed event roll past your inner eyeballs. All across the country, the Army under the control of one candidate, the sitting President, in an extremely close election begins to march at thousands of polling places to assure – if the political analysis is correct of who might be prevented from voting – the reelection of that same President.
Does this imaginary video you have just been watching with your eyes closed remind you of Ukraine, of Guatemala, of Burma (until six months ago)?
I can imagine no action more calculated to bring a wave of public revulsion against a President who did such a thing, and more likely to bring about his electoral defeat, if indeed the votes were fairly counted in the presence of the Army.
But it’s not so much his proposal as the uncut industrial-strength anxiety that provoked Klate’s piece in the first place that makes me want to say Sha. I’m not denying the reality of Republican voter suppression efforts. (I wrote about them in September, with links to the ACLU and others who have been responding with energy and determination.) I’m not downplaying the intensity of their vicious and cynical actions to discourage voting by people in Mitt Romney’s disposable 47 percent.
What I am questioning is the remarkable degree of mastery and stealth competence this scenario attributes to the Republicans, who mostly seem at least as bumbling as anyone else in electoral politics, and often more so. Just compare the list of Romney’s bloopers, insults, and apologies with Obama’s and consider that if his party were as supremely capable of masterminding things as the alarmists say, why couldn’t they run a better campaign?
It does nothing to strengthen real democracy to overstate the power of its opponents. If the bogeyman starts to expand to occupy the entire front room of your imagination, the best thing you can do for yourself and for democracy is to chill. With presence of mind, you may be able to do something truly useful.
My grandmother was a challenging guardian, to say the least, but a truly excellent cook. She taught me to make a number of complex and delicious dishes, some of which I’ve shared here (for example, apple strudel and stuffed cabbage). But her supreme comfort food was chocolate pudding, which she made from a packaged mix.
She called it by its brand name: “Do you vant a My-T-Fine?” When you thicken a pudding with cornstarch, you need only bring the mixture to a boil to attain the right consistency. Grandma liked to be sure things were really cooked, though, exterminating any lurking germs. So she stirred the roiling pot for several minutes before turning off the flame. This made the pudding really dense, leaving a thick skin on the top when it cooled. I still like to let a rubbery disk form, peel it off and munch on it, but the more evolved way to make this dish is to let the pudding cool with plastic wrap or waxed paper directly on top of the mixture, which prevents a skin forming.
Googling just taught me that My-T-Fine was the first packaged pudding mix (launched in 1918), and evidently, people are buying it online by the case. This is kind of hard to understand, because chocolate pudding is so simple to make from scratch, it doesn’t exactly qualify as a recipe, more a formula.
2 cups milk, half-and-half, or cream
1/4 cup cocoa
3 Tablespoons cornstarch
1/2 cup sugar (or the equivalent sugar substitute)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
To prepare on an ordinary stove, place the cocoa, cornstarch, and sugar in a heavy saucepan and stir well to combine. (If you are using sugar substitute, do not add it until the pudding is cooked.) Stir in a half cup of the milk a little at a time, making sure that the resulting paste has no lumps. Stir in the balance of the milk and cook the mixture over a medium flame, stirring constantly and scraping the bottom of the saucepan, just until it comes to a full boil. Stir in the vanilla (and if you are using sugar substitute instead of sugar, stir it in now too). Pour into one larger or several smaller dishes and refrigerate until ready to serve. If you want a skin to form on top of the pudding, chill it uncovered.
To prepare the pudding in a microwave, mix the dry ingredients with the half-cup milk as directed above, but do it in a two-quart microwave-safe glass bowl. Add the rest of the milk and cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap. Place it in the microwave oven and set the timer for five minutes, but watch it closely. As soon as the mixture boils vigorously, it is done. Remove it from the microwave, stir well, add the vanilla (and sugar substitute, if that is what you are using), and proceed as above.
This makes two serious servings or four dainty ones. The pudding can also be flavored with rum, orange rind, liqueur, or mint.
The Princeton Election Consortium is currently putting Obama’s chance of winning the electoral college at close to 100 percent; Nate Silver puts it at over 85 percent. In contrast to the people who keep sending you freaked-out messages about how close the contest is, these folks aren’t trying to drum up donations. They explain how they’ve reached their conclusions, and their process seems about as sound as such things can be.
Still, no one can foretell the future with certainty. We can only do all we can, then recognize that what will come will come. Terrorizing ourselves doesn’t change the equation: it just increases the suffering of waiting to see how it will turn out.
“Adam’s Lullaby” by Natacha Atlas is the most beautiful lullaby in the world, as far as I am concerned. Sha, sha, baby. Eat your chocolate pudding and remember not to scare yourself with bad dreams, bubeleh.