With ballet companies from Maine to California performing their versions of the Nutcracker holiday classic, I recall my first viewing at age 4. It was 1954 — the year the New York City Ballet debuted its production of Balanchine’s Nutcracker.

My grandmother (whom I called “Mom-Mom” — Mommy’s Mommy) had two front orchestra tickets. We took the train from the Bronx to Times Square and had lunch at my favorite, Toffenetti.

When we got to New York’s City Center, I realized I left my purse at Toffenetti. Mom-Mom called them on the phone high up on the lobby wall: “They’ve got it and they’ll hold it for us,” she assured me. But I needed to hear this for myself. Mom-Mom held me up so I could get confirmation directly. The hostess described my purse accurately; now we can go inside.

And that’s all I remember of that day. But that wasn’t the end of the drama.

Sometime later, my grandmother said that when the curtain lifted, I stood on my chair and announced: “The boys aren’t wearing pants! Their tuchus is showing!” She recalled the audience cracking up—as did the musicians and the dancers.

Mom-Mom explained that the boys wore tights, so their tuchus only looked like it was showing. An early lesson in “things are seldom what they seem.”


I seemingly repressed this memory—was it that traumatic? In Freud’s psychosexual theory, at age 3 we enter the phallic stage, when boys experience “castration anxiety” and girls just endure “penis envy.” Freud said we don’t remember this, because these feelings allegedly get repressed.

Most psychologists rightly reject this theory now, and I don’t see how it applied to me, in any case. So the question of why I was moved to make my announcement remains. Enter developmental psychologist Erik Erikson.

Erikson’s famous ego psychology emphasized the development of our psychosocial strengths over Freud’s antisocial sex-and-aggression-seeking Id. In Erikson’s phallic stage, we begin to take initiative: to assert ourselves willfully, including initiating constructive fair play with peers.

Aha! By age 4 I was asserting my will at City Center to ensure that everyone knew about the problem—especially the male dancers.

Telling the truth would become a theme of my life — from outing Santa in preschool to discerning truth in science and in our social/political world. I started out like the boy who announced that the emperor wasn’t wearing any clothes. Except in this case the clothes could be detected — if one understood the dance.

Many Republican lawmakers seemingly think they understand the political dance well enough to ignore the obvious fact that their emperor wannabe isn’t wearing any clothes. Indeed, they don’t care, in their Trump ring-kissing pursuit of power. And that’s the problem—our problem and hopefully theirs, in 2022 and 2024. Time will tell


Meanwhile, I’m asking Santa to convince them to put on their big-boy pants and tell their willfully-ignorant followers the naked truth about The Big Lie they use to justify preventing left-leaning citizens from voting. I’ll be thinking of those lawmakers as I watch clockwork toymaker and magician Herr Drosselmeier crack nuts in Act 1 at Merrill Auditorium.

With warning-shot gubernatorial elections in Virginia and New Jersey, Dems should take a page from Herr Drosselmeier’s book: Crack race-baiting, voter-suppressing GOP nuts forcefully, beginning with cracking the filibuster nut, so we can all vote and have our votes count. As Maine Independent U.S. Senator Angus King aptly put it, “Democracy itself is more important than any Senate rule.”

The midterm and presidential election clocks are ticking, and the evil Mouse King, with his mice minions, now has wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing candidates (like Virginia’s Youngkin) advancing his demagogic agenda. This real-life “production” is as monstrous as it seems.

Democratic lawmakers should re-activate their preschool skills: Play constructively with each other, so as to initiate unified action against those who are rigging the rules to subvert free and fair elections. This isn’t just fair play. Senator King rightly called voting rights “sacred”: They must be protected, to allow every one of us to assert our political will. And this fair play is hardly child’s play — as Erikson, who fled to America from Nazi Germany, would have surely agreed.

Barbara S. Held, PhD, is a Barry N. Wish Professor of Psychology and Social Studies Emerita at Bowdoin College.

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