Scott Simon

Congress used to like to pass spending bills before an election. Representatives could return home to campaign and say, "Look what we did for you!"

But with 13.6 million people out of work, Congress may not pass a new coronavirus relief bill. Both parties may feel, in today's fractious politics, they can fire up their supporters best if they don't compromise, and blame the other party.

The death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg adds another loss to a year that has already seen so many. 2020 has brought illness, isolation, financial struggles, and overwhelming fear. It's often felt like the hardest year many of us have ever known. And it's still months from being over.

But this weekend also begins 5781: it's Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year. And that number – 5781 – may remind us that humanity has suffered other plagues, famines, losses, wars and disasters for centuries before 2020.

The dreamscape of California has looked like a hellscape this week. California, America's Golden State — "Warm, palmy air — air you can kiss ..." wrote Jack Kerouac — has had choking air, scalding heat and surreal orange skies.

California has been the dreamland of so many who hope to strike it rich or start over, a state of mind, as well as a state: a place for fresh starts, freeways and free love.

Now and then, two news stories rub up against each other and strike sparks.

This week David Blaine, the magician and illusionist, strapped himself to 52 helium-filled balloons, lifted off into the big, blue skies above Arizona's Great Basin Desert and floated. It was something out of a childhood dream.

"I want to go up and become a tiny dot in the sky," he had told the New York Post.

The greatest athletes know: Children are watching. They see them in the stands and on the streets, wearing small versions of their jerseys. They hear them shouting their names. They know from their own lives how children can see sports figures as heroes — and imitate how they play, walk and talk — and what they do.

Sal Khan, the founder and CEO of Khan Academy, built an education enterprise on virtual learning. But as many communities across the country prepare to start the fall with online-only instruction, even he admits that distance learning is a less than perfect substitute for in-person schooling.

The former hedge fund analyst first hatched the idea for Khan Academy as a way to tutor his younger cousins in math. Since its launch in 2008, the site has been providing free video tutorials and lectures. Today, it serves more than 100 million users worldwide.

Posthumous pardons don't do much for the people who receive them. They're usually given to try to make a statement for history.

But President Trump's pardon this week of Susan B. Anthony, on the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which secured the right for women to vote in America, has dismayed some of those who know the most about Susan B. Anthony, and her story.

"A pardon says you've done something wrong," Rutgers Professor Ann Gordon, a leading scholar of the women's suffrage movement, told us. "Susan didn't think a woman voting was wrong."

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Pete Hamill was a tabloid man: a columnist and top name on the masthead, mostly for the New York Post and Daily News, who wrote punchy, passionate, lyrical chronicles of city life, often for people who had to read them while they held onto a strap, standing on the Number 7 train from Queens.

I've had lunch with politicians, clergy, reporters and people who've just been indicted at Manny's Cafeteria and Delicatessen in Chicago, and there's a code of silence over the clatter: it doesn't count. The schmear of cream cheese thick enough to be a ski jump? No calories! Potato pancakes hefty as manhole covers?

No calories!

Ants do it. Lobsters do it. Even equatorial mandrills do it. Why don't many Americans do it: Wear masks and keep a wise social distance from each other?

Scientific American reports this week how several animals seem to know how to take precautions and keep their distance so they're less likely to be infected by a peer.

Baseball's Negro Leagues were formally founded a hundred years ago this week. They should never have had to exist — but they sure had some glorious players and times.

Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell, and many more stars who couldn't play in the major leagues because of the cruelty of segregation engineered a sports enterprise of their own with superb teams that included the Kansas City Monarchs, Chicago American Giants and the Homestead Grays.

When actor Matthew Rhys first found out about plans to reboot the legal drama Perry Mason his first question was: Why?

"Why would you? How can you?" says Rhys, who stars in the new HBO show.

This Perry Mason is no rerun of your grandfather's Perry Mason from the 1960s. He's not a sharply creased L.A. defense lawyer, with a voice that booms in wood-paneled courtrooms.

No, this is "a very dark Perry Mason to which I was instantly very attracted," Rhys says.

A man I called Uncle Jim showed me how to tie a tie. The day I was going to graduate from 8th grade, he saw me in a white shirt with a yellow clip-on bow tie, shook his head, and went to his apartment to bring back one of his own dark blue neckties. Jim showed me how to pull together a Windsor knot, which I tie to this day.

Why are there U.S. military bases named for Confederate officers who took up arms against the United States?

I've covered stories at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, where the XVIII Airborne Corps is headquartered, and Fort Benning, Georgia, known as the Home of the Infantry.

With nationwide protests focusing renewed attention and urgency on the issue of police brutality, Mayor Lori Lightfoot of Chicago says that police unions continue to be one of the biggest obstacles to reform.

75 years ago, in the summer of 1945, Ralph Waldo Ellison returned home from serving in the Merchant Marine during World War II and tried to rest on a farm in Vermont. But he was restless to write a novel. It would take him five years. That novel, Invisible Man, is enduring and imperishable.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

John Glenn circled the Earth, won combat medals, was a U.S. senator, ran for president and went back into space in his late 70s. He was unreservedly considered a hero.

The band Woods has always incorporated diffuse influences, taking inspiration from lo-fi rock, Ethiopian jazz and psychedelic folk sounds. Guitarist and vocalist Jeremy Earl, who recently became a father, says his group's latest album, Strange To Explain was influenced by something else — a lack of sleep.

"Those first few months or first year of having a newborn kind of put me in a dreamlike state," he says. "And that was my escape: to start writing."

Jonah Mutono's debut album GERG is really more of a re-entry. Until late last year, Mutono released music under the name "Kidepo." But starting with the single "Shoulders," and now with GERG, he's sharing his real name and story of self-acceptance for the first time.

Andrea Hoehn of Waseca, Minnesota, told us this week, "I just want to wake up from this nightmare."

Many may feel that way right now. But the experience of the Hoehn family, and other livestock farmers, may be distinctly telling and tragic.

The Hoehn family has run a hog-farm for 6 generations. They can feed and care for about 20,000 hogs at a time, until they're sent to a packinghouse, where, yes, the pigs are slaughtered and packed for food. Hog-farming is a tough business, physically and financially, even in good times.

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