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May 7, 2020

CAFE Insider Newsletter #71: 56 Days Later, A Creeping Sense of Squandered Time

Dear Reader,

Seventy-nine years ago, in the summer of 1941 and just months before America went to war, a beloved ballplayer set a record that stands to this day. It is a sports feat that many think will never be surpassed. Between May 15th and July 17th of that year, Yankee center fielder Joe DiMaggio successfully hit in 56 consecutive games. No one had ever had such a hitting streak before, and no one has since. DiMaggio, who later went on to marry Marilyn Monroe, stands alone.

Why do I mention this? Well, because of a cosmic coincidence that bears noting. It occurs to me, as I sit in my basement writing this note in the middle of a global pandemic, that I have set something of a parallel personal record. As of today – May 7, 2020 – I have successfully stayed at home for 56 consecutive days. That’s right, folks. Fifty-six days. Now, that may not impress you so much because my streak demanded no athletic prowess whatsoever. Indeed, it called mostly for sitting on my behind and overeating. More likely, it doesn’t impress because many of you and millions of other people in America and around the world can boast similar streaks. Fair enough.

But as so many of us are in the same boat, I thought I would confess something. As I reflect on my streak – which would have been unthinkable even four months ago – a new feeling has surfaced. On top of the sadness, incredulity, and anger is a creeping sense of squandered time. To be sure, I’ve been working, putting out podcasts, writing, editing, teaching, and … tweeting. But there’s no more commuting, no more public speaking, no more socializing, no more functions to attend, and no more planes to catch. So, as a matter of math, I have more time on my hands. Time, as the wise say, is our most precious commodity, because it is finite and non-renewable. There is no lottery or luxury quite like found time. And so, as I take stock, I am wondering what I have to show for it.

I am no fitter, smarter, or saner. I’ve had no transcendental epiphanies. I don’t have a new book proposal. I’m not beating any deadlines; existing work, as it is wont to do, expands like a gas to fill up the extra time. I have no new hobbies. I’m not even better rested.

Of course, my quarantine is not entirely without accomplishment. I got Apple TV and watched all three seasons of Ozark, both seasons of Barry, three seasons of Curb Your Enthusiasm, and multiple Mike Birbiglia comedy specials. I treated my kids for the first time to Godfather IGodfather IIThe Shawshank Redemption, and Good Will Hunting. (Our brave and defiant plan to view Contagion has not yet materialized.)

I’ve also done some things to reverse domestic entropy: six-year old medicine bottles are discarded, my basement workspace is much less cluttered, my bookcases are a touch more organized, and I finally managed to connect my laptop to our wireless printer. I’m proud of these home improvements, especially the last one, pathetic as it may seem. And there are, as I’ve said before, daily meals with all the kids, which is the only real treat in these times.

But again, as a normally industrious and striving person, I wonder whether I should have more to show for it. Maybe that’s my internal Type-A taskmaster talking, leveling his typical unfair allegations at me, paying no mind to the once-in-a-century devastation unfolding around us. It’s another version of the somewhat cynical maxim: never let a crisis go to waste. But anxiety about the pandemic is an invisible time-suck, and total uncertainty about the future can surely crowd out industrious impulses. It takes a while to get used to the new normal, the upending of routines, the sameness of the days. It seems hard to plan stuff when you can’t remember what day it is. Or when you never have to wear pants. It’s easy to be adrift these days. Do you agree or am I alone here?

Maybe the feeling will pass. Or maybe my sudden awareness of it will be a kick in the pants. In any event, I’m not going to worry about it too much. There’s enough else to fret about. If I manage to write a book of poetry or turn into a marathoner or become a Chaucer expert in the coming weeks, I will certainly brag about it to all of you right here in this space. In the meantime, thanks for this therapy session.

By the way, here’s the other difference between my streak and Joe DiMaggio’s. His ended at 56. Mine will last a lot longer. As will yours. And so if you’re fortunate enough to have some found time in this mess, use it however you wish. No judgment.

Be well and be kind.

My best,


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The Birth Control Wars

By Sam Ozer-Staton
WASHINGTON, DC – MAY 4: The U.S. Supreme Court during the first day of oral arguments held by telephone.

As the Supreme Court convened this week by teleconference for the first time in its history, it revisited a long-running debate: the battle over birth control.

On Wednesday, the Court heard oral arguments in a pair of cases that will decide whether employers can deny women free birth control coverage under the Affordable Care Act on religious grounds.

The Court has heard several high-profile cases involving access to contraceptives in recent years, but this week marks the first time that it has done so since the start of the Trump presidency. The cases currently before the Court, Trump v. Pennsylvania and Little Sisters of the Poor v. Pennsylvania, involve a Trump administration rule that granted employers a sweeping religious exemption from birth control coverage requirements.

The question before the Court in the Pennsylvania cases is different from the Obama-era contraception cases, the most notable of which was Hobby Lobby v. Burwell (2014). That case asked whether religious objectors could defy federal regulations requiring employers to provide birth control coverage. In a narrowly-tailored 5-4 decision, the Court’s conservatives in Hobby Lobby held that some privately-held companies are exempt from the birth control requirements, a ruling that the Obama administration got around by cutting religiously-exempt companies out of the process and extending birth control coverage to their employees directly.

Now, after the Trump administration issued a significantly broader exemption, the states of Pennsylvania and New Jersey are challenging the expanded exemption and questioning its consistency with the Affordable Care Act’s provision requiring insurance companies to cover women’s “preventive care and screenings” free of cost. Under the Trump administration’s 2017 exemption,

[The Affordable Care Act] must not provide for or support the requirement of coverage or payments for contraceptive services with respect to a group health plan established or maintained by an objecting organization, or health insurance coverage offered or arranged by an objecting organization.

The administration’s rule extended the religious exemption to all companies, non-profits, and universities — and it broadened the definition of religious objector to include employers who seek to deny coverage “based on sincerely held moral convictions.”

In the wake of that policy shift — and given the Court’s ascendant conservative majority  —  reproductive rights advocates are hoping for a ruling on technical grounds that tosses out the Trump administration’s rules. Pennsylvania Chief Deputy Attorney General Michael Fischer, arguing on behalf of the plaintiffs, said Wednesday, “What this case is about is not the resolution of a long-running dispute, but rather the assertion of vast agency authority at the expense of Congress and the courts.”

Fischer also argued that the Trump administration’s rule is overly broad, saying that the rules provide “a grant of authority so broad it allows them to permit virtually any employer or college to opt out of providing contraceptive coverage entirely, including for reasons as amorphous as vaguely designed moral beliefs.”

Chief Justice John Roberts, the Court’s likely swing vote, expressed sympathy with aspects of Fischer’s argument. “I wonder why it doesn’t sweep too broadly,” Roberts asked U.S. Solicitor General Noel Francisco. “In other words, not everybody who seeks the protection from coverage has those same objections.”

Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotamayor reminded the Court about the tangible impact of its decision: up to 125,000 women could lose contraceptive coverage under the new Trump administration rules.

Having just been admitted to the hospital for a gallbladder condition on Tuesday evening, Justice Ginsburg participated in oral arguments from her hospital bed. Directing her comments at Solicitor General Francisco, Ginsburg said, “You have just tossed entirely to the wind what Congress thought was essential, that women be provided these services with no hassles, no cost … Instead, you are shifting the employer’s religious beliefs, the cost of that, onto these employees.”

Should organizations be exempt from providing their employees a health insurance plan that includes birth control coverage on grounds that it conflicts with their religious beliefs? Let us know your thoughts by writing to us at [email protected], or reply to this email.


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If you haven’t already, listen to this week’s episode of Stay Tuned “Consciousness & COVID Ethics,” featuring neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harris at or the podcast player of your choice, and don’t forget to listen to the bonus for Insiders.

This week’s episode of CAFE Insider, “The Return of Flynn and McGahn,” breaks down the takeaways from the recently unsealed FBI documents in the Michael Flynn case, and the impact of the litigation involving a House subpoena for former White House Counsel Don McGahn on the future of congressional oversight.

In a special episode, “The New Threat Matrix,” former presidential advisers Lisa Monaco and Ken Wainstein explore the wide ranging national security and geopolitical implications of the pandemic and what’s at stake for the U.S. should there be upheaval in North Korean leadership. The bonus discussion for Insiders makes sense of the headlines on FISA and the firing of Intelligence Community Inspector General Michael Atkinson.

As always, write to us with your thoughts and questions at [email protected].

That’s it for this week. We hope you’re enjoying CAFE Insider. Reply to this email or write to us at [email protected] with your thoughts, suggestions, and questions.

— Edited by Tamara Sepper

The CAFE Team:

Tamara Sepper, Sam Ozer-Staton, David Kurlander, Noa Azulai, Calvin Lord, David Tatasciore, and Matthew Billy.