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A dozen albums for a penny? I've still got mine, and plenty of time to listen

By Geoff Edgers
A dozen albums for a penny? I've still got mine, and plenty of time to listen
The first set of cassette tapes reporter Geoff Edgers received from the Columbia Record & Tape Club. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Adam Glanzman

"Take any 11 albums for a penny. Then take the 12th one for free!"

The mathematical absurdity still makes my mouth water. A penny! Come on now. For all that music?

Though business journalists have demystified the formula driving the Columbia Record & Tape Club, I remain hypnotized. Because in early 1983, when I was 12, there was no Craigslist or eBay or sidewalk boxes full of Crash Test Dummies discs. Back then, I marked my selections on the form in Parade magazine, added my mom's check for $1.86 - the penny plus $1.85 for shipping - and waited by the mailbox.

Technically, this deal was far from over. By signing up, you were also agreeing to purchase eight more tapes over the next three years at regular club prices, which were often $14.98 a pop. But we could face that reality later. What mattered in the moment was the cardboard container that arrived with your first dozen selections. I still remember pulling that box open.

Suddenly, I was no longer a kid forced to rotate between my cassette of the self-titled Cars debut, that red (1964-1967) Beatles greatest hits collection and an Abba tape I'd acquired in Norway during my father's year-long teaching sabbatical. I was in "The Club."

I could get pop music, funk, new wave, punk and at least three kinds of heavy metal: the devilish stuff (Ozzy, Judas Priest), the glossy (Def Leppard) and work I would be proud to share many decades later (AC/DC, Van Halen). Which brings me to the pandemic, and how I recently rediscovered the Columbia collection I'd kept stored on a shelf above my desk all these years.

As my world has shrunk and my social interactions have lately become defined by social distancing protocol, I've been employing my still pristine Panasonic 5085 boombox for parking lot chair circles and patio gatherings. And there is still magic in those tapes, at least the ones that will play. (Sorry, Prince's "1999" and Black Flag's "The First Four Years.") They make people happy and all it takes is six D batteries.

Though I've had to replace a couple - "Beauty and the Beat," swapped out for a Go-Go's Greatest Hits collection - the music from my original box remains a powerful antidote to the psychological toll of isolation.

So, in no particular order, here are the Top 7 plays from my initial Record Club booty and their release dates.

- The Go-Go's, "Beauty and the Beat" (July 8, 1981)

The opening, Peter Gunnish-groove of the big single, "We Got the Beat," is the musical equivalent of Atari, "Growing Pains" and legwarmers. Welcome to the '80s. It's no wonder the band's No. 2 hit drove the mall scene opening of "Fast Times at Ridgemont High." And the Go-Go's were more than one-hit wonders. They were a girl band, technically, though they were women in every way, sort of an instrument-playing update of the Shangri-Las. You didn't want to meet them in an alley or sign up against them in Battle of the Band. They had chops, attitude and a legit, Top 10 frontwoman in Belinda Carlisle. How could Go-Go's 1.0 have lasted just through 1984?

- AC/DC, "Back in Black" (July 25, 1980)

Like describing Matisse's finest flowers, it's hard to use words to explain the majestic sweep of AC/DC's sixth record. The opener features a 2,000-pound bronze bell sounding before Angus Young's dirty doom chords kick in and we hear lead singer Brian Johnson for the first time. (Bon Scott had died only months earlier, after "Highway to Hell.") The next AC/DC record, 1981's "For Those About to Rock (We Salute You)," had cannons, but this rebirth features the band at its best.

- Simon and Garfunkel, "Greatest Hits" (June 14, 1972)

The music itself is really secondary here, though it's hard to argue with a tape that features "Mrs. Robinson," "The Boxer," "The Sound of Silence" and "I Am a Rock" - and that's just side one. The true highlight for me was the cover, with Paul Simon's porn-stache and weirdo fox-hunting chapeau as he stands next to Artie Garfunkel. I admit, S&G were a little on the soft side for my 12-year-old self, but I'd grown up building forts in the living room out of my parents' copies of the duo's record jackets. So even if I was far more likely to try to sneak into a Circle Jerks show than make the long pilgrimage to Central Park for the big reunion, I could appreciate this hit-packed collection.

- The Clash, "Combat Rock" (May 14, 1982)

Nothing was cooler than Joe Strummer, and that's still true. His punk army get-up - fatigues, Mohawk haircut, worn Telecaster - was just perfect, as was his push to "Know Your Rights." Nobody knew then that the Clash were so close to the end, that lead singer Strummer and guitarist Mick Jones would implode before they could record a sixth album. "Combat Rock" featured their biggest hits, "Rock the Casbah" and "Should I Stay (Or Should I Go)."

- Ozzy Osbourne, "Diary of a Madman" (Nov. 7, 1981)

There was a time when Ozzy didn't stammer or do reality TV. He also created some of the most bannable covers this side of the PMRC. (That's the group formed, in part, by Tipper Gore that pushed for labeling albums seen as unfit for children.) On "Diary," Ozzy wears blood-streaked stretchy pants and stares out, with a menacing glare, from this monstrous, Medieval library that could be a laboratory. The music was anything but theater. This would be his last record with Randy Rhodes, the guitar hero who died tragically in a plane crash at the age of 25. And they did not cut corners. "Over the Mountain" blasts out of the boombox and "Flying High Again" is a deceivingly poppy blend of groove guitars.

- The Kinks, "One for the Road" (June 4, 1980)

There are better Kinks albums. Maybe at least 11 better ones. But there is no better document to the band's arena-rock resurgence in the late '70s, early '80s. This live album came after Van Halen's rebranding of "You Really Got Me," which seems to have led Ray and Dave Davies down the long, open road of barre chords. Even the most eccentric Kinks Klassics - OK, sorry - are arena-fied. And there is also Ray's jokey intro to "Lola," which he starts and stops and then starts again. If you are 12, this is one of the funniest musical jokes this side of "My Bologna."

- Van Halen, "Women and Children First" (March 26, 1980)

"Have you seen junior's grades?" Apparently David Lee Roth had, and they were not good.

The opening track offered the most mind-blowing guitar blast you can imagine, what sounded like a jet engine strung with Fender heavy gauges. But in fact, this was Eddie Van Halen at his most creative, blasting an electric piano through a Marshall amp. There is a lot to love about VH's third album, from the oddball stylings of Diamond Dave on "Could This Be Magic?" to the grinding lead work of Eddie on "Everybody Wants Some." And if you were a kid staring at the album cover, with the band members posing as a kind of heavy metal, mini-army, it would be hard to imagine a day when Van Hagar would rule.

A hairdresser and her client finally reunited at the salon, and everything was different

By Karen Heller
A hairdresser and her client finally reunited at the salon, and everything was different
Dulce Astolfi, left, owner and colorist at Sorelle Hair Studio in Maple Glen, Pa., applies hair color to her client, Beth Dickson, on Friday, the first day the salon was allowed to reopen. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Michelle Gustafson

MAPLE GLEN, Pa. - It was like the first day back at school, except with hair dye and combs in canisters of Barbicide. Oh, and masks. Exciting, and also a bit daunting.

"I want to hug you," Beth Dickson says to Dulce Astolfi from behind a paper mask.

"Me, too," says Astolfi, answering behind a black cloth.

There would be no hugs. No coffee. No snacks. No touching of products. No lounging. No chitchat between waiting clients except while standing many feet apart, yelling through the muffling of their masks and over the din of blow dryers.

On March 14, Pennsylvania became one of the first states to close hair salons and barber shops in response to the covid-19 pandemic, and on Friday, its most populous counties were among the last places to reopen them. The Keystone State had been rendered the land of forlorn locks.

It had been almost 16 weeks since Dickson's last appointment, 111 days to be precise. An entire season! We're talking hair that, without regular maintenance, has a will and a way of its own. Much like pests or weeds.

Astolfi, 48, owns Sorelle Hair Studio, an airy salon tucked behind a strip mall in a verdant Philadelphia suburb. Dickson, who works in sales for a financial tech company, is her monthly coloring client of 20 years. She followed Astolfi from her former salon to Sorelle, which the stylist opened a decade ago, naming it after "sisters" in Italian.

How much does Dickson trust Astolfi? Why, Astolfi convinced Dickson, whose natural tresses are dark chocolate, to go blond - Nordic blond - in her mid-50s. Dickson, 59, never looked back.

And here she was returning on the first day Astolfi was permitted to reopen her door. Dickson had taken off the afternoon from work to "triage" her hair.

"It's nice to return to normal - as much as this can be described as normal," Dickson says.

Going to the hair salon, a quotidian treat and a monthly - or, in some cases, weekly - reclamation project, is no longer normal. Given the tactile nature of hair care, a glut of new regulations has completely altered the experience. For the foreseeable future, getting a haircut - and color, which can take hours longer - will be the epitome of our risk/reward calculations. Are our vanity-defying roots worth the potential exposure to coronavirus or infection of others? For many women, the answer appears to be "I'll take the next available appointment."

Closing was brutal for Astolfi, following a year when Sorelle enjoyed a 6 percent growth in revenue. In April, she grossed $2,000, earned from sales of gift certificates and home hair-dye kits. Her monthly rent is $4,650. In May, she grossed $1,000.

"Thirty percent of hairdressers live paycheck-to-paycheck," says Mary Rector, founder and CEO of Behind the Chair, an industry website. The median stylist income was $26,270 in 2019, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. During the shutdown, some stylists continued to worked in defiance of state orders; some were jailed. "We're anticipating 40 percent of salons going out of business due to the pandemic. I'm dying for my constituency. It's going to be more devastating than they even know." Rector fears that, with the national spike of new coronavirus cases, some states may require salons to shutter again.

Almost 800,000 Americans work in hair care and cosmetology, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the overwhelming majority are women. Sixty percent of salons are owned by women, according to the Professional Beauty Association.

In Pennsylvania, salon reopening dates were floated, then dismissed. Some owners filed suits. When Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf announced they could reopen, Sorelle was flooded with more than 750 emails and 500 voice mails from clients jockeying for appointments.

"What I've missed in the past three months is my connection with my clients," Astolfi says. "Most of the time, they become your friends. They might arrive in a terrible mood but by the time they leave, they're happy and smiling."

Astolfi, whose family moved from Portugal to the United States when she was 5, has been doing hair since she was 18. Like many stylists, Astolfi describes hair as her passion. It was her only career choice.

A hair salon is an oasis for clients to unwind and improve. It is a place they visit to instantly feel better - provided your concept of "instant" is a couple of hours, to set base color, highlights and gloss. Yet it is all about the touch, the laying of professional hands on exposed roots and damaged ends.

In the days leading up to reopening, to abide by Pennsylvania's new regulations, Astolfi removed all makeup testers, magazines, some lounge and side chairs. There would be less relaxing.

Astolfi installed clear shower curtains between work stations (plexiglass proved too costly except for the front desk), and purchased cleaning products, disposable paper capes, disposable plastic chair covers, UV sterilizing boxes for phones and keys, and black and white masks printed with the salon's name. Hand sanitizer was installed next to styling products, mirrors - frankly, everywhere. A coloring trolley cart was transformed into a cleaning trolley cart. During the weeks she was closed, Astolfi had the salon professionally cleaned three times.

But the biggest change is reducing simultaneous bookings by half, staggering clients as well as her all-female staff of 17. Starting Friday, she planned to work eight days straight.

"I'm terrified. Just terrified," Astolfi says a few days before reopening. Two fears dominated. "Someone will be upset about nothing," she says, and that anxiety will spread. "Or someone is going to walk in and they don't know they have coronavirus." She worried for her clients and staff. "It's just the fear of the unknown."

Before her appointment, Dickson worried most about Astolfi's financial well-being. "I know how hard she works. I can go without color," she says. "What's it doing for her bottom line? Small businesses are really suffering. I want to support her. She has worked so hard to get this business up and going." While the salon was shut down, Dickson trimmed her side bangs and purchased a dye kit from Astolfi, enlisting the help of a YouTube video and her husband.

On Friday, Astolfi arrived at the salon at 6:30 a.m., dressed in a long black sundress and towering platform espadrilles with leopard-print straps. Clients came dressed in flip flops, their toes unvarnished. Nail salons had only reopened that day as well.

There was delight in seeing friends. Many clients know each other and are close to the stylists and staff. There was much commiserating, mostly about hair. Clients arrived with roots as white as powder. Bangs had grown into waterfalls. Bobs had devolved into kudzu.

Instead of 10 chairs, only four were occupied. Instead of four shampoo stations in the back, two were in use. Instead of three "girls" behind the front counter - they are forever "girls" well into middle age - only two booked and checked out clients, who ranged in age from teenager to great-grandmother. Customers had to be called before they were allowed to enter, then were asked to sign a health waiver, checking off six boxes.

Now, to reduce congestion in the salon, clients are asked to let color set while sitting in their cars. All afternoon, there was a steady parade of women in capes, masks and dye-soaked heads exiting the one-story premises for the parking lot.

Dickson arrived at noon. She was Astolfi's 12th client of the day.

Astolfi mixed Dickson's highlights and color, painting on sections before folding foil into cascading rectangles to help them set, a process that makes the client look like a cross between the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion. They chatted about their children, college choices, high school sports, the quarantine, work, even hair.

"There's no drama with her," Dickson says. "Everybody is friendly and professional. I just want to decompress, have some fun."

Lena Liberman, 44, who cut Dickson's hair, and dyed and waxed her eyebrows, was ecstatic to return. They talked about food, actors, children, the lockdown, more food.

"I've been losing my mind," Liberman says of not working for months. "I took up cooking, gardening, baking."

Three and half hours later, and $330 lighter - Dickson swallowed as she recited the damage - she left with a lustrous curtain of varied blond highlights. She was smiling. Or what appeared to be a smile behind her blue cotton mask.

An earlier client had already texted Astolfi her thanks: "I just wanted to write to you to tell you how great a job you're doing. I felt safe this morning. You seemed to pay attention to every detail."

For all the preparations, the added expenses, there is only so much Astolfi can control. "I think we all have that underlying fear," she says. "What if this happens again in September and we have to shut again?"

Astolfi had eight clients left, 20 in all. She would not return home until 9:30 that night, 15 hours after her work began. And yet, she texted, "It was a great day!!"

Myrtle Beach reopened to survive the summer. Now, it's a coronavirus 'petri dish.'

By Tony Romm
Myrtle Beach reopened to survive the summer. Now, it's a coronavirus 'petri dish.'
Crowds pack the beach in Myrtle Beach, S.C. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Brett Lemmo

Cara Ellen Modisett fields the usual battery of questions every time she visits the doctor: Is she feeling well? Did she travel abroad? Has she been in contact with someone known to have the coronavirus?

Then, last week, Modisett's physicians in Roanoke, Va., added an unexpected query to their list. "They asked whether I had been to Myrtle Beach," the 47-year-old said.

With summer in full swing - and the Fourth of July holiday around the corner - scores of Americans have booked hotels, hit the boardwalk and camped out along the popular South Carolina coast. The unexpected rush of vacationers has helped rejuvenate a local economy left in tatters this spring when the pandemic closed shops and halted travel nationwide. But it has also turned the Myrtle Beach region into a coronavirus hot spot - and a startling example of the difficult, and perhaps deadly, calculation some cities and states face about when to reopen.

Dozens of locals, visitors and business owners describe a beach that has been packed at times over the past few weeks, with few people wearing masks and maintaining safe distances from one another. The city did not even require facial coverings when businesses reopened in May, although city council members are expected to vote on a mandate as soon as Thursday.

The safety lapses have resulted in a surge of infections in Horry County, where Myrtle Beach is located, which had registered more than 3,300 confirmed coronavirus cases by Tuesday, according to public health officials. The figure does not include countless tourists who unknowingly contracted the virus while visiting and unwittingly have taken it back home to multiple states including Kentucky, Ohio, Virginia and West Virginia, where Gov. Jim Justice, R, recently warned people to "think twice" before traveling to Myrtle Beach.

Some residents and travelers alike are now wondering whether Myrtle Beach reopened too quickly, forgoing critical safety precautions in an attempt to salvage much-needed tourism revenue. But government officials and business leaders have stressed that a prolonged closure would have resulted in irreparable harm to workers and their families, underscoring the complexity that many localities face in a pandemic that at times has pitted economic recovery against public health.

"For Myrtle Beach, it was a survival decision," said Brenda Bethune, the city's mayor.

"We all expected once we opened up, and people started coming from other areas, that we would see those [case] increases and we certainly have," she said. "On the other hand, how do you keep things closed, and keep people out of work, when families have to pay their bills?"

The challenge facing Myrtle Beach is shared by major tourist destinations nationwide: The very characteristics that make their cities and states so attractive to vacationers also represent some of the greatest risks for spreading the coronavirus.

Beginning in March, governors imposed a wide array of restrictions on hotels, beaches, bars and restaurants, hoping to ensure that some of these normally densely packed places did not become breeding grounds for infection. Epidemiologists say some of the moves have prevented even more deaths during a global health emergency that has killed more than 124,000 people in the United States.

But the restrictions have also carried economic costs, resulting in fewer travelers - and fewer dollars generated for tourism-dependent governments and businesses alike. A grim study conducted in June for the U.S. Travel Association, a Washington-based trade group for the industry, predicted a $505 billion decline in travel spending by the end of the year, reducing U.S. economic output by $1.2 trillion.

"To ignite an economic and jobs recovery, these businesses need to be able to open," said Tori Emerson Barnes, the association's executive vice president for public affairs and policy.

The pandemic had just started to wane in some parts of the country when South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster, R, lifted some of the restrictions he had imposed, paving the way in April for Myrtle Beach and its surrounding communities to open their hotels fully by mid-May, just in time for Memorial Day.

The news delighted local business owners, who had watched their revenue plummet during the two months when their businesses were closed because of the pandemic, said Karen Riordan, the president of the Myrtle Beach Chamber of Commerce. An estimated 40 percent drop in sales compared with the same period a year earlier threatened to cripple an economy that depends entirely on tourists, about 20 million of whom vacationed on area beaches in 2019, she said.

Myrtle Beach initially expected the vacationers to return at a slow trickle. Instead, throngs of travelers soon descended on its sandy shoreline and its nearby resorts by mid-May. Visitors clumped together on the sand, packed the boardwalk and its shops and restaurants, and fully booked out some hotels in just a matter of days.

"As soon as we opened there were people standing in line waiting," said Michelle Kerscher, the general manager of the Gay Dolphin Gift Cove, a 74-year-old, 35,000-square-foot souvenir emporium on the beach's main drag, Ocean Boulevard. "We didn't expect to see demand to be so high immediately."

The rush of outsiders left some residents, travelers and shop owners anxious in the middle of a pandemic, fearing that perhaps too many people had come too quickly. Adding to their fears, before Myrtle Beach reopened for business, it did not require that residents and visitors wear masks, considered one of the easiest, most effective ways to cut down on the spread of the coronavirus. Bethune, the city's mayor, and her fellow council members said they had to defer to state officials, including McMaster, who generally has questioned the effectiveness of such blanket orders.

With no mask requirement, few families that came to Myrtle Beach actually wore them, alarming public health experts - and heightening the risk of infection.

Teresa Meyer, 55, was delighted to see the influx from out of town at the Palace Resort, a 23-floor getaway overlooking the ocean where she has lived for seven years. Many of the units are rented out every summer season, and without those tourists, "people were losing money," said Meyer, who serves on the Palace Resort's homeowners association board.

To combat the coronavirus, the resort tried to encourage guests to stay socially distant from one another and wear masks, but few followed the recommendations, Meyer said. Instead, families crammed with their beach chairs and umbrellas into elevators, not keeping their distance from other tourists or covering their faces - turning the elevators into a "petri dish" for the virus, she said.

"People came on vacation and thought the virus did," Meyer continued, adding: "We opened too hard, too fast, without the proper safety mechanisms."

Tourists have packed into Broadway at the Beach, a complex of stores, bars and restaurants about a mile from the shore, where Kimberly Luksic and Maxwell Narvarra, 26-year-olds from Atlanta, said a hot-sauce shop recently was handing out free samples of its spicy condiments on chips to eager patrons. (They didn't partake.) An Italian buffet about a block from Ocean Boulevard had spaced out diners and tables, as recommended, but "everyone working there wasn't wearing a mask," said Willis Glasgow, a resident of nearby Florence, S.C.

At the Tanger Outlets, a shopping mall in Myrtle Beach, so few people were wearing masks last weekend that Harold Reaves and his wife didn't even bother to get out of their car. The duo from Columbia, S.C., had planned to browse the rows of clothing and shoe stores on a Saturday, when Reaves, 55, figured that most tourists would be checking in or out of their hotels. Instead, they were horrified to find congested sidewalks, so they turned around, opting not to take a risk.

"We're definitely staying away," he said.

Inside one of the mall's sports and apparel stores, Bree Cowan, 20, said she has seen a steady stream of customers trying to come in without masks. "We're doing the capacity limitations and stuff, and we're doing the necessary precautions," she said. "The visitors, the tourists, the locals coming in - they're not."

The flood of tourists - and the lax policy on masks - appears to have contributed to an uptick in coronavirus cases. "It seems good for the economy that we bounced back that quickly," said Gregg Smith, a member of the Myrtle Beach City Council. "But as we're seeing now, having all those people here is really creating an issue and creating more positive [coronavirus] tests."

Officials in Horry County have reported at least 100 new cases in the county almost every day for the past two weeks, state records show. The infections appear to have spilled into nearby South Carolina towns that aren't even on the coast, demonstrating the potentially dangerous and more widespread consequences of Myrtle Beach's swift reopening.

"People forget about social distancing, people remove their masks, people throw caution to the wind, and they're out there to enjoy summer on the beach . . . and immediately after our numbers started to rise," said Barbara Jo Blain-Bellamy, the mayor of the nearby city of Conway. She contracted the coronavirus about four weeks ago.

Cities and states outside of South Carolina have reported a similar increase in infections stemming from families that rushed to Myrtle Beach last month. Six states have warned their residents not to visit South Carolina or specific parts of the 60-mile coastline region known as the Grand Strand. In Kentucky, health leaders specifically raised the possibility that Myrtle Beach hotels have contributed to one of that state's outbreaks.

"If you or someone to whom you are close has been to Myrtle Beach in the past two weeks, please be aware that you have a good probability of having been exposed to the novel coronavirus," Steven Stack, Kentucky's public health commissioner, said in a statement.

In Ohio, a group of 90 students from Belmont County and surrounding areas who celebrated the end of the school year in Myrtle Beach now are experiencing an outbreak of their own. About two dozen of those students have tested positive but are asymptomatic, said Darren Jenkins, the superintendent of Bellaire School District. More than 100 teenagers in the Washington, D.C., region similarly are believed to have caught the coronavirus while on vacation there, Virginia officials confirmed this week.

The Fourth of July presents an even larger challenge for Myrtle Beach, whose mayor, Bethune, described it as "historically the busiest week of the year." The three-day weekend is a critical part of the roughly 100-day summer calendar, when most businesses race to make enough money to survive the slower winter months.

Anticipating a flood of tourists, the city is set to hold a council meeting Thursday that could result in a requirement for masks. Like many South Carolina cities, Myrtle Beach leaders thought they couldn't take the critical step until the state's attorney general announced that municipalities do, in fact, have the power to set their own policies on face coverings. Bethune and other city council members say they support such an order, following other nearby towns, including North Myrtle Beach, that recently have required masks.

But Bethune stressed that Myrtle Beach is unlikely to take the most aggressive step - closing the city's beaches - to combat the recent spate of new coronavirus cases. With businesses in the red, an economy on the precipice and a city confronting its own share of financial headaches, Myrtle Beach simply can't afford it, she said.

"The fact of the matter is this virus is here for a while," Bethune continued. "I believe it's very unrealistic to say we have to shut down again. . . . We have to learn how to live with it."

Pulitzer-winning opinion from the most respected voices in the world.

Gene's pleading: Leggo my Lego

By gene weingarten
Gene's pleading: Leggo my Lego


(Advance for Sunday, July 12, 2020, and thereafter.)

(For Weingarten clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

By Gene Weingarten

WASHINGTON -- To: The Lego Group, Billund, Denmark

Please accept this column as my official notice of intention to file suit. It will allege that your company has infringed on my right of publicity via the unauthorized use of my likeness in your plastic mini-figurines, toys that are infamous for causing pain, and inducing hopping and cursing, when stepped on by a parent's bare foot.

My pain is of a different nature. I am outraged that your company chose to profit through the appropriation of my image, without my permission, consent or even passive acceptance. When coupled with the negative barefoot-trauma reputation of your product, this damages my "brand," resulting in a tortious civil wrong for which I intend to exact heavy monetary compensation. I attempted to speak with a company exec to express my outrage and perhaps work out a mutually acceptable financial accommodation but was turned down by your PR firm, so this notice must suffice.

I am writing in reference to a figurine that was part of a series issued by your company in 2016. Alert reader M. Carrie Allan, who writes about cocktails and spirits for The Washington Post, alerted me to this tortious legal wrong. The figurine in question was part of a Beatles-themed "Yellow Submarine" Lego set, and your company disingenuously contended this one represented a likeness of John Lennon. It is instantly apparent that this is, in fact, not Mr. Lennon at all but a near perfect representation of me.

To press my claim, I have amassed evidence, interviewed experts and obtained legal advice. For example, I consulted the greatest living authority on reproduction of my face -- the cartoonist who draws it nearly every single week. Asked to comment on the figurine, Alex Fine said, "I think if I was sent this anonymously with no identifying information, I'd assume Lego was releasing a new 'Shagadelic Gene' figure as part of some Austin Powers Lego set. I definitely would not have guessed John Lennon."

The distinction is evident. A little-known fact about John Lennon is that, in person, he was a ginger: redheaded, and rather startlingly so. Your Lego product makes no effort to replicate that hue, nor does it part his hair neatly in the middle, as was John's custom. Instead, its hair is black, like mine, and raggedly scuttles onto his forehead like the tonsure of a Tibetan yak left out in the rain. Just like me.

Now, I know what you are thinking. You are thinking that, legally, I have no leg to stand on. You would be wrong. I asked Lawrence Townsend, the renowned Silicon Valley intellectual property lawyer with 40 years' experience, to make my best case, theoretically, and he began speaking jubilantly and did not stop for a while.

"You may well be entitled not just to the profits they made from this figurine but damages caused to you therefrom. Just look at the robotic hands on this figure, with their pincer grips, like something from an assembly line. A soulless machine. You are not a machine. Your reputation is of a creative person, a free-ranging humorist. It's damaging. And the blatant hair-color discrepancy? A telltale sign of intent."

I asked him if this was a winning theory, and he said, and I quote: "Well, it's definitely a theory."

So there you have it, Lego toys. I am willing to accept, as settlement, as many $20 bills as can be crammed into a standard-size valise and mailed to my home. Alternatively, for the sake of humanity, I will accept your company's assurance that in the future all Lego bricks and figurines will be made of foam rubber.

Gene Weingarten can be reached at Follow him on Twitter, @geneweingarten. Chat with him online Tuesdays at noon Eastern at

(c) 2020, Washington Post Writers Group

American businesses have the power to change China's behavior. Time to step up.

By megan mcardle
American businesses have the power to change China's behavior. Time to step up.


Advance for release Saturday, July 4, 2020, and thereafter

(For McArdle clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

By Megan McArdle

WASHINGTON -- By the time someone gets to be chief executive of a successful firm, they have generally been trained out of saying anything surprising in public. So I was positively astonished Monday when I saw Patrick Collison, the CEO of payments firm Stripe, tweet that "As a US business (and tech) community I think we should be significantly clearer about our horror at, and opposition to, the atrocities being committed by the Chinese government against its own people."

On first read, that sentiment might seem banal. Of course we should clearly oppose China's intensifying political repression. But is easier to list American business leaders who have cravenly excused the inexcusable than to name those such as Collison, who have been brave enough to state the obvious. When it comes to China's human rights abuses, the position of the American business community is prone.

China has just passed a national security law for Hong Kong that has essentially ended any hope of liberal democracy there. The Associated Press reports that the Chinese government has added forced abortion and mandatory birth control to the mass surveillance, concentration camps and family separations that it has already inflicted on its Uighur community. This is inching close to attempted genocide, and it is what inspired Collison's tweet.

There's a legitimate argument that businesses should be loath to take political stands - don't they have enough to do, just making products and selling them? But that defense is hard to maintain as my inbox overflows with messages from companies that want to be sure I know about their latest initiatives to fight systemic racism and police brutality. These are worthy causes, but embracing politics looks more convenient than moral if your principles vanish at the first sign that they might cost you something. And that's particularly true since the U.S. business community is probably the group with the most power to actually change China's behavior.

Ali Wyne of the Atlantic Council recently told me that corporate pressure would likely be a "more potent source of medium- to long-term pressure on China to change its human rights behavior than . . . political admonishments from the U.S. government." Condemning U.S. racism, however, is costless, while standing up to China risks corporate investments in cheap Chinese manufacturing, or companies' access to China's 1.4 billion consumers. So it takes a leader like Collison, who does only limited business with China, to say what has to be said.

It is not an accident, Collison told me, that Stripe has limited investment in China. It was a deliberate choice, because of both the moral and economic costs of doing business within an unfree state. But most CEOs decided that the benefits - among them the vast labor pool and even vaster consumer market - outweighed those costs.

Ten years ago, it was easy to believe that those moral costs would soon dissipate. Trade would expose China to liberal democratic ideas, and as they got richer, they would get more free. It's still possible that that happy vision will come true, but if so, that future seems a long way off.

Instead, it seems that China, having read the same arguments about the liberalizing effect of trade, is cracking down to ensure that we don't export our democratic values. And so, we risk importing their despotic ones. Hollywood trims its major releases to meet the demands of Chinese government censors; airlines change their maps to erase Taiwan; U.S. business leaders, even its athletic stars, suddenly become tongue-tied about the value of freedom.

"It must be possible," Collison tells me, "to acknowledge the basic facts - for example, that concentration camps and forced sterilization programs are reprehensible evils. If it becomes de facto unacceptable to do so, as part of some kind of self-perpetuating silence, it really seems to me that that's a positive feedback loop that we should hurry to break."

That's not something that one leader can do alone; it's more likely to take all of them. "China does need U.S. markets and U.S. companies in aggregate. They can't ban everyone and there can be safety in numbers," Collison says. It's possible, of course, that the Chinese might decide to give up U.S. markets rather than liberalize, as they gave up Hong Kong's usefulness as a financial hub. But if we can make a difference, we should find out.

Despite Collison's example, most CEOs probably won't take that risk on their own; they will be too afraid of being undercut by less scrupulous competitors who retain their access to China's markets and manufacturing prowess. So on this Fourth of July, it falls to the American public to take the same stand for liberty, equality and justice abroad that we recently have at home. We must force U.S. businesses to state, loudly and without equivocation, that all people have certain inalienable rights, even if they live in China, and that defending those rights is worth our lives, our sacred honor and, yes, even our fortunes.

(c) 2020, Washington Post Writers Group

Don't upset yourselves, conservatives. John Roberts hasn't gone dangerously rogue.

By ruth marcus
Don't upset yourselves, conservatives. John Roberts hasn't gone dangerously rogue.


Advance for release Sunday, July 5, 2020, and thereafter

(For Marcus clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

By Ruth Marcus

WASHINGTON -- Conservatives in a tizzy over Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. should calm down. Roberts is no closet liberal; he's a savvy operator at the helm of a decidedly conservative court.

Granted, Roberts' recent alignments with the four liberal justices are unnerving for conservatives, to say the least. He wrote the opinion invalidating President Donald Trump's move to revoke the Obama-era order protecting "dreamers," who were brought to the United States as children, from deportation. Along with Justice Neil Gorsuch, he said gay and transgender employees are covered by federal anti-discrimination law. And, perhaps most alarming for conservatives, he provided the fifth vote to overturn a Louisiana abortion law.

Has Roberts gone dangerously rogue, another conservative disappointment along the lines of the court's previous swing justice, Anthony M. Kennedy?

If only - although Kennedy, with notable exceptions, was a reliably conservative justice for three decades.

Roberts has famously, and somewhat facilely, likened the judge's role to that of umpire, objectively calling balls and strikes. Yet a few surprising calls shouldn't obscure his overall sense of the strike zone. And to switch sports metaphors, he is moving the ball steadily down the constitutional field, toward the conservative end zone. Of the dozen 5-to-4 cases decided by the Supreme Court this term, Roberts is the only justice to have been in the majority each time. He sided with the liberals just twice.

It's worth noting that Roberts' episodic deviations from conservative orthodoxy have tended to involve laws and regulations - cases where Congress or the executive branch can fix anything they think the court got wrong - more often than constitutional interpretation, where the court gets the last say.

Take the final day of last term. Roberts cast a deciding vote with the liberals to block the administration from adding a citizenship question to the census. The ruling didn't say that question was impermissible, just that it had been tacked on in a shoddy, dishonest way. Roberts then sided with fellow conservatives - indeed, he wrote the opinion - to say the court would not review claims of partisan gerrymandering. As a practical and doctrinal matter, the gerrymandering case is far more consequential: removing the judiciary from ensuring that votes actually count.

This term contains echoes of the last. Roberts' vote with the court's liberals in the dreamers case involved another sloppy and disingenuous executive action by the Trump administration. The immediate stakes for affected individuals were enormous, but the longer-term legal consequences were not: Administrations present and future were simply admonished they have to follow the rules to change the rules.

The employment discrimination case is similar, this time involving legislation. The court's ruling that discrimination because of sex includes bias against gay and transgender employees has a huge practical impact, in employment cases and elsewhere, because so many federal laws contain similar wording. But Congress remains free to undo the decision, unlikely as that is. And the majority opinion, by Gorsuch, applies a conservative legal approach - focusing on the words of the statute, not the intent of its drafters - to reach the liberal policy result.

Balanced against these statutory and regulatory cases, conservatives - with Roberts' help - achieved significant wins this term on constitutional issues. In a major separation-of-powers case with implications for the constitutional status of other independent agencies, Roberts ruled that, for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to pass constitutional muster, the president must be allowed to remove the director at will.

Roberts also wrote the opinion for the conservative majority in an important religious freedom case, holding that states that choose to subsidize private schools cannot exclude religious institutions. Consider how blurred the line between church and state has become as conservatives have gained power: The court has moved from allowing states to aid religious schools to requiring them to do so if they fund other private schools.

Then there is abortion. Four years ago, Roberts dissented when the majority, with Kennedy providing the fifth vote, struck down a Texas law requiring that abortion providers obtain admitting privileges at nearby hospitals. On Monday, in a case involving an essentially identical Louisiana law, Roberts for the first time voted to invalidate a restriction on abortion.

Prior to the abortion ruling, Roberts' greatest sin, in conservative eyes, was his 2012 vote to save the Affordable Care Act. In both situations, Roberts was surely motivated by institutional concerns. On health care, a vote to strike down such a landmark law along party lines would undermine Roberts' case for judges as neutral umpires, citing the importance of sticking with precedent. On abortion, his insistence that the judiciary is not composed of "Obama judges" or "Trump judges" falls short if the only explanation for different outcomes is the arrival of a new justice.

But even as Roberts maneuvered to uphold the Affordable Care Act, he did so in a way that moved the law in a conservative direction, cutting back the scope of Congress' power under the Commerce Clause and its ability to threaten states with losing federal funding.

Similarly, in the abortion case, even as Roberts cast his first ever vote to overturn an abortion law, he endorsed a test that may make it easier for abortion restrictions to pass constitutional scrutiny in the future.

Make no mistake: This is a justice in for the long haul, and steering in a conservative direction.

(c) 2020, Washington Post Writers Group

Fareed Zakaria column ADVISORY

By fareed zakaria
Fareed Zakaria column ADVISORY


Fareed Zakaria is taking a one-column vacation this week for the July Fourth holiday, so will file his next column Thursday, July 9, for release Friday, July 10. If you need a substitute column, you are welcome to run ANY of our other syndicated columns in his place, including by writers your publication does not subscribe to. To use a substitute column, first go to, where you can browse our full offerings by clicking on the Syndicate tab. Open a column you'd like to use and click on the "Copy as Vacation Sub" button to grab the full text. Should you have questions, contact us at or 800-879-9794, ext. 1.

A massive repudiation of Trump's racist politics is building

By dana milbank
A massive repudiation of Trump's racist politics is building


Advance for release Sunday, July 5, 2020, and thereafter

(For Milbank clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

By Dana Milbank

WASHINGTON -- Four years ago, Christopher Parker, an African American political scientist at the University of Washington, made the provocative argument that Donald Trump's candidacy could "do more to advance racial understanding than the election of Barack Obama."

"Trump's clear bigotry," Parker wrote in the American Prospect, a liberal journal, "makes it impossible for whites to deny the existence of racism in America. . . . His success clashes with many white Americans' vision of the United States as a fair and just place."

Those words seem prescient today, after four years of President Trump's racism, from the "very fine people" marching with neo-Nazis in Charlottesville to, in just the past week, a "white power" retweet and a threat to veto defense spending to protect the names of Confederate generals; after a pandemic disproportionately ravaged African American communities while an indifferent president tried to move on; after Trump-allied demonstrators, some carrying firearms and Confederate flags, tried to "liberate" themselves from public health restrictions; after the video of George Floyd's killing showed the world blatant police brutality; after Trump used federal firepower against peaceful civil rights demonstrators of all colors.

The reckoning Parker foresaw is now upon us. White women, disgusted by Trump's cruelty, are abandoning him in large numbers. White liberals, stunned by the brazen racism, have taken to the streets. And signs point to African American turnout in November that will rival the record level of 2012, when Obama was on the ballot. This, by itself, would flip Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin to Democrats, an analysis by the liberal Center for American Progress shows.

Surprisingly high Democratic turnout in recent contests in Wisconsin, Georgia, Kentucky and Colorado points to the possibility of a building wave. The various measures of Democratic enthusiasm suggest "turnout beyond anything we've seen since 1960," University of North Carolina political scientist Marc Hetherington predicts. If so, that would mean a historic repudiation of Trump, who knows his hope of reelection depends on low turnout. He has warned that mail-in ballots and other attempts to encourage more voting would mean "you'd never have a Republican elected in this country again."

That may not be wrong. Trump has accelerated a decades-old trend toward parties redefining themselves by race and racial attitudes. Racial resentment is now the single most important factor driving Republicans and Republican-leaning movers, according to extensive research, most recently by Nicholas Valentino and Kirill Zhirkov at the University of Michigan - more than religion, culture, class or ideology. An ongoing study by University of North Carolina researchers finds that racial resentment even drives hostility toward mask-wearing and social distancing. Conversely, racial liberalism now drives Democrats of all colors more than any other factor.

Consider just one yardstick, a standard question of racial attitudes in which people are asked to agree or disagree with this statement: "It's really a matter of some people not trying hard enough; if blacks would only try harder they could be just as well off as whites."

In 2012, 56% of white Republicans agreed with that statement, according to the American National Election Studies. The number grew in 2016 with Trump's rise, to 59%. Last month, an astonishing 71% of white Republicans agreed, according to a YouGov poll written by Parker and conducted by GQR (where my wife is a partner).

The opposite movement among white Democrats is even more striking. In 2012, 38% agreed that African Americans didn't try hard enough. In 2016, that dropped to 27%. And now? Just 13%.

To the extent Trump's racist provocation is a strategy (rather than simply an instinct), it is a miscalculation. The electorate was more than 90% white when Richard Nixon deployed his Southern strategy; the proportion is now 70% white and shrinking. But more than that, Trump's racism has alienated a large number of white people.

"For many white Americans, the things Trump is saying and getting away with, they just didn't think they lived in a world where that could happen," says Vincent Hutchings, a political scientist specializing in public opinion at the University of Michigan. Racist appeals in particular alienate white, college-educated women, and even some women without college degrees, he has found: "One of the best ways to exacerbate the gender gap isn't to talk about gender but to talk about race."

Trump's racism has also emboldened white Democrats, who have often been on the losing end of racial politics since George H.W. Bush deployed Willie Horton against Michael Dukakis in 1988. "They're embracing the racial issues they used to cower on in decades past," Hetherington says.

This is what Parker had in mind when he wrote in 2016 that Trump could be "good for the United States." The backlash Trump provoked among whites and nonwhites alike "could kick off a second Reconstruction," Parker now thinks. "I know it sounds crazy, especially coming from a black man," he says, but "I think Trump actually is one of the best things that's happened in this country."

(c) 2020, Washington Post Writers Group

The U.S. job market is still in very bad shape. Just wait until the fiscal time bomb goes off.

By catherine rampell
The U.S. job market is still in very bad shape. Just wait until the fiscal time bomb goes off.


Advance for release Saturday, July 4, 2020, and thereafter

(For Rampell clients and FOR PRINT USE ONLY)

By Catherine Rampell

The U.S. economy added 4.8 million payroll jobs in June, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported Thursday. That's terrific news for those newly hired, but there are at least three reasons for the rest of us to hold off on popping the champagne.

First, even with these gains, U.S. payrolls are still deeply in the hole. Second, these official government numbers are based on a snapshot from mid-June, and more recent data suggest the recovery has either stalled or deteriorated since then. And, third, a major fiscal time bomb is about to detonate.

Let's start with the jobs hole.

You may have a sense that things are still quite bad, given that the unemployment rate remains higher than it ever was during the Great Recession. Until recently, the depth, duration and sluggish recovery from the Great Recession had put all other postwar downturns to shame. But things are much worse now than even the Great Recession.

Again, it's fantastic that the hiring trend has, in fact, turned upward. But there are still 14.7 million, or about 10%, fewer payroll jobs than there were at the start of the pandemic recession. And even if job growth continues at what President Donald Trump calls "rocket ship" pace, the economy still has a long way to go before reaching an acceptable altitude - that is, until U.S. payrolls are anywhere near pre-pandemic levels.

There's also reason to think that our little "rocket ship" might slow down - or perhaps already has. Which brings us to worry No. 2.

Thursday's jobs report reflects activity in mid-June, because the Bureau of Labor Statistics' employer survey always refers to the pay period that includes the 12th day of the month.

Mid-June feels like a long time ago. Since then, confirmed coronavirus cases have surged, especially across the Sun Belt. Some states (Florida, Texas, California, among other jurisdictions) have halted or even reversed their reopening plans, especially in the industry that reported the greatest job gains at mid-June: leisure and hospitality, which Thursday's jobs report showed as contributing about 40% of the overall gain in U.S. payroll jobs.

Additionally, other recent, private-industry metrics suggest the recovery may be sputtering.

Foot traffic to businesses, based on cellphone movement patterns compiled by SafeGraph, shows a pickup through the spring, then a plateau or even a slight dip in late June. The trend is similar for real-time measures of small-business health (businesses open, employees working) provided by Homebase, which offers scheduling software to small businesses. Same for real-time, private industry data on restaurant reservations, consumer spending, etc.

Federal Reserve officials have expressed concern that economic conditions could get much worse with a renewed spike in infections, according to the minutes of a meeting released on Wednesday. The path of the pandemic aside, other major economic risks loom.

In particular, a fiscal time bomb is about to detonate. Actually, two separate bombs.

Enhanced unemployment benefits are scheduled to expire at the end of July, and Republicans have said that no way, no how will the program be renewed. Some have expressed concerns that the enhanced benefit - a flat $600 federal payment on top of state benefits - might disincentivize work because some workers receive more in benefits than they earned in wages. But that design could be amended.

Additionally, states and localities are going broke. Thanks to COVID-19, their tax revenue has plummeted and expenses have gone up. Lucy Dadayan of the Tax Policy Center estimates that the pandemic will reduce state revenue alone by $200 billion (or about 10% of pre-pandemic projections) over fiscal 2020 and 2021. Officials from both blue and red states have pleaded for federal help. Unlike most states and municipalities, after all, the feds don't have to worry about balanced budgets.

While there is bipartisan support in Congress for providing state aid, it hasn't happened yet. Republican Senate leaders have said they don't plan to put together the next coronavirus relief bill until the end of July.

Perversely, the gains in Thursday's jobs report might reduce pressure on policymakers to pass this needed legislation.

This would be foolish. Already, states and localities have laid off about 1.5 million employees since the pandemic began. Unless federal aid comes through soon, huge new public-sector layoffs and service cuts can be expected in the months ahead, followed by knock-on job losses in the private sector.

For a sense of just how dire the outlook remains, lawmakers might consider the Congressional Budget Office's latest economic forecasts, also released Thursday. The agency projects that, absent any additional fiscal relief, the United States will close out 2020 with an unemployment rate of 10.5% - still higher than it ever was during the Great Recession.

Now is not the time for lawmakers, or their constituents, to let down their guard.

(c) 2020, Washington Post Writers Group

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