Privilege

There is that fizzy sensation when one opens a can of soda, it gently pops around the nostrils as a drink is taken.  The CO2 slides down the throat with sugar and gives opportunity for spectacular burps.  I don’t usually drink soda.  At restaurants it is usually very flat, and I don’t particularly like the taste.  But the re-release of “throw-back” products (Pepsi, Dr. Pepper come to mind) made with real sugar (not corn syrup) got me to try soda again, if just for a moment.

The pop of the can and the fizz took me back, and gave me a very strong sense memory of Pepsi in odd green plastic glasses at my great-grandfathers house.  I smiled.   I recalled when soda was a treat on a hot day, a cold fizzy thrill to a small child. 

It’s strange the things we take for granted.  This fizz, this tickle of the nose is a privilege in a country that takes so much for granted.  To have the cash to buy a box of throw back soda cans, stick them into a refrigerator that will reliably keep everything cold, and then grab ice from the freezer icemaker to pour it over is truly a privilege I take for granted most days. 

We do not own a large house, and the mess that accumulates so fast from toys, dirty laundry, clean laundry, papers, and dishes overwhelms me.  But I forget that the lights turn on when I need them, the washing and drying machines have worked for a long time, the water out of the tap goes through a filter and is as clean as we can ask for.  The toilet flushes; the shower provides enough hot water for us all to shower (if we don’t stall!).  We have a large yard, several garden areas, fully grown shade trees, a play-tower and privacy fence around it all.  We truly live here and we take for granted the infrastructure that makes all of this possible.

I have gotten annoyed lately at all the vague grousing about government.  The lack of civics courses in schools seems to have lead to a general stupidity about what government does and what we take for granted.  I watched our local city council meeting last night on the local government access channel.  It was both boring and fascinating.  The minutia, the need to consider several different points of view, just to get a visionary plan for roads on paper is amazing.  There are people who go to work everyday to make sure our garbage is picked up, our roads fixed, policed; our children schooled, firefighters, water plant persons, electric commission folks, the list goes on and on.  Is there corruption?  Sure.  From my time spent in Chicago I learned that the machine that makes a complex city possible is also a self-aware machine; there is an unspoken cap on what greed can take place.  Step out of line and the machine will slap you down.  In well functioning bureaucracies, there is a larger measure of working for the greater good than greed, and the baseline for what is acceptable is low and functional.  I understand the massive anger at the out of control greed easily observable to the citizenry, but in our anger let us not forget that most of our civil service workers are just people who do a job the best they can, and make our infrastructure possible. 

I lobbied in state government for several years and saw many things.  Most of what I observed I was surprised and depressed about.  The I grew up a bit and merged that experience with living in urban areas; I took a longer view of what is possible, necessary, and what is a privilege as a citizen.  I keep at arms length from politics now, but still vote.  I give credit to those who are willing to be representatives at the local level, the least glamorous of political levels.

Do I expect better? Sure.  Am I aware of how lucky we are, in the smallest of ways?  Yep.  I didn’t say there were no incompatible ideas in my head, or anyone’s for that matter.  To be an adult is to live with paradox, and make peace with it as best we can.  When I was out in L.A. recently everyone I talked to was annoyed at the cell phone service breaks that are constant in the area.  One can not reliably make a call and expect it to go through, or stay connected when it does.  It is incredibly annoying, disruptive, and dangerous.  It is an infrastructure issue.  We are at a point where we must, I believe, take measure of what we need- what infrastructure means- and apply our governmental power to that with vision and speed.  No more bridges falling down (think Wisconsin), no more abuse of our water sources.  As a citizenry, we must collectively recognize what the baseline for a civil, functioning society means and pursue it with our taxes and voices.

The fizz is slowly dying in my glass.  What a treat today, to have a soda.  No food to complicate the experience, no noise or competing activity.  Sun, a break for a soda, and some tunes on the stereo.  It is a privilege.  Cheers.

The flags were made in China

4th of July, 2010.  We saw the Karate Kid remake.  It’s a good “family” movie, and I like Jackie Chan.  The editing is well done, the acting adequate.  The subtle love letter to China understandable.  It was the parade this weekend that got me.  No bands this holiday, a lot of car and motorcycle groups, the newly elected GOP reps walking and riding smugly along, and the tea party making a show with flags and loud music.   Later that evening, a friend showed me a photo he had taken of the flags that were being given out by the parade walkers.  It was clearly stamped on the side “made in China”. We laughed a rueful laugh together.

I read on the net in a paper I usually peruse that international corporations in China are getting itchy because of a recent wave of worker strikes.  They are striking over the things all factory workers strike over.  So the factories are closing down or moving inland to poorer regions.  There is only so much of the globe that can be exploited- or is there? How long before the US becomes just another third-world country, and the factories come back to us because we have the cheap, unskilled, easy labor?  I am disgusted with the complete erasure of “the greater good” discussions about what is best for the most people, especially from our elected officials.  I am sick of ethics classes not being required for a B school degree.  I am sick of infrastructure as a taboo subject.

I wanted to hope.  I know a lot of people who did.  It seems if we continue to hope, we fall into a category of stupid: doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results each time.  Our 4th of July parade was the same format, the same route, the same disappointing motley groups of marchers.  Wave that flag, lick the dripping post-parade icecream and keep the desperation deep in your chest tamped down, drowned out, ignored.  “Keep on keepin’ on” as the sign on the back of the monster truck recommended.  Wipe your brow, nod to a neighbor and agree with the shop keeper to “Have a happy 4th”. Postcard from America 2010.

That old feudal feelin’

A Washington Post journalist writes this week that his time at Davos (the world economic conference) surprised him.  He found a form of “populist” rage simmering in the most powerful and monied people of the world, and it was spurring many extreme conversations about what should be done to fix world financial systems (one such suggestion was global labor laws).

Yet the anger he observed is significantly different from the populist rage and anxiety of the powerless (which means most of us).  We are angry because everyday basic transactions of life have been and continue to be violated, while we are expected to conform to “rules” and at the same time be suckers- at the loss of home, health, family, and life in many cases.  Some predict a French revolution style acting out- but the very wealthy know better.  They are angry because enough nouveau riche (newly rich), many of whom are in banking, designed systems to get rich quick, without thought for consequences, and made the very rich feel threatened, robbed and worst of all- duped.  My father told me once not to taunt a big dog, you’ll get bitten.  That newly rich man with ties to Madoff found floating in his pool?  Get bitten indeed.  The worst thing a very powerful (which is synonymous with wealth in our world; money being necessary, but not the whole definition of what constitutes a powerful individual) person feels is to be duped, taken advantage of, treated like a fool.  It is the highest form of insult, and retribution is always swift.

 Those who were at Davos now talk about “fixing” the series of problems that have brought us to our current global economic insecurity, and in ways that circumvent a revolution (because those are bad for business) and consolidate their power even more, so that such recent financial events do not happen again.   I am not a fan of “runaway” capitalism.  Quite the opposite.  But it fills me with feelings of foreboding to know that the super powerful are trying to find ways to change things, and not in ways that mimic socialism, communism, or capitalism.   The discussions at hand are filled with the knowledge that to maintain any economic stability, the vast majority of people must feel safe, or at least not threatened.  Thus did the discussion of global labor laws arise.  The uber-powerful already consider themselves the care takers of the rest of us, if for nothing more than the fact that to do so stabilizes their own positions. But how much care?  How much cost-benefit analysis must be done?  There will be complex formulas, there will be intricate arguments.  But what these proposed changes at the very highest levels will mean seems to be a new feudalism.

 Let’s consider this for a moment, shall we?  There have been many societies in history that had explicit class levels (Thank you William the Conqueror, and India for examples).   Consider the warrior/military class; think the new global Blackwaters, er, newly named Xe, that have taken over global military function.  All else, at the national level, is a form of employment that takes the lower class (as defined by education, intellect, money, family, and regions) and gives them a job- makes them a National Guard so to speak- that does domestic work.   Think of recent events around the earthquakes in Haiti.  It is a textbook example of one of the poorest places in the world (and hence not of high financial stakes, such as Iraq, that require explicit military “intervention” to “secure”: control for the profit of specific people).  The fast, very public response to the events was amazing.  How many photos, tweets, essays, videos, and general information moment to moment got circulated?  With no invested entities to curtail it (as was in the recent Iranian elections), the information flowed and then did resources.  Will this become a global pilot model of support to shape the future from?  This model allows us all to feel involved, puts resources in poor places, and happens globally, not just locally.  Interest dies in increments of time out from event, as information overload leads us to believe things are being taken care of.  What a machine!

 Will the new skilled/crafts class be our doctors?  Our lawyers?  Engineers?  What will the business class be, and how much will they be allowed to do?  Will there be a rise of the sanctioned social services class (teachers?  nurses? city planners?  garbage people?  mail persons?) generally labeled as government workers?  Will there be untouchables (with the complete privatization of prisons, will they become workhouses to be “productive” and contribute to the overall system?  Will there be degrees of this class on a global scale?  Will execution of the very worst be a global standard?)?  What will the new global legal courts look like?  Will the aristocracy maintain the highest levels of judges and law?  What will the religious/priestly class look like?  What will their sanctioned roles of control be?

 Most of all, are we kidding ourselves if this is not implicitly, if not explicitly, already the case?   Those at Davos will do what they will do, hash out compromises among themselves, and agree upon ways to squelch any reaction in ways that will not be overtly violent (China is learning the backlash of that approach).  They will find ways to garner our support, throw us bones.  We will be more organized, we will possibly even feel “more” free.  We may not fear global war anymore.  We may not fear for our children’s lives.  I do not know what the specifics will look like, I can only imagine possibilities.  But I wonder, will George Orwell’s books quietly disappear?  Will all the IPads and Kindles just not carry them, and then our collective memory of these books and what they posit simply evaporate into history?

 Post Davos, post 2010, what does the future look like?  I don’t know.  I may be in the intellectual class now, but we are only allowed access to certain information and means of expression.  I am ignored by those who would rather happily munch toxins and watch quasi-violent entertainment, and am segregated by those who would rather have their ideas promoted, not mine. In sum, my class has some cultural capital, but we are wage slaves none the less.  Perfectly contained in other words.  Now if I could only get my hands on some Soma, I’d be fine.  But I’m sure the CEO’s of Glaxo are working on that.

Stuck in the middle with you

It has been said that describing the American experience as being at the mercy of anything is to give in, to invite patriarchy.  To believe that forces larger than the collective of the citizenry control our fates for good or ill encourage hopelessness, and metaphors of parents (which conservatives and religious leaders seem to like overly well).  This may be generous- because feeling powerless and recognizing forces larger than oneself are also a form of realism, grim as it can be.  Also, it seems these are the first steps to action, to reacting, and to resisting.  Not just in the ways of adolescents, but in ways that are methodical, well thought out, and effective as resistance.

It seems in our current moment most of us are caught between descriptions and forces of extremes in politics, economics, and other facets of life.  We have become again faceless masses others like to speculate about, and use for their purposes.  Even, it seems, with a new populist media/technology of tweets, Face and Space ramblings, and blogs- have we become still more invisible?  It sounds like a paradox, but it is not.  Listen to several different objects at once, and it all becomes white noise.  When a stronger signal breaks through, it is all we can hear.  That a limited amount of people control stronger signals is simply fact.  That we can become seduced by the plethora of information, disappear down rabbit holes of specificity that appeal to any current emotion and interest is the new soma.  George Orwell had the date and substance wrong, but in general I think he was right.

The film The Matrix comes to mind, a metaphor for waking up from our collective pervasive delusions.  Is revolution truly fomenting as some of late have claimed?  Or are we the stepchildren of warring parents, ostensibly being protected and shut into rooms, not seen, not heard?  The uber rich dine with religious extremists; if an apocalypse is coming they simply hole up, drink up, and toast to the end.  What becomes of anyone else is not their concern, and justifiable by pointing blame out to those they refuse to see.

We do not seem to feel a basic strength that would help make positive change- our very collective humanity.  Kinship with people different than we are by nationality, class, or any other category seems antithetical to the current paths of anger, mistrust, defensiveness, and blame that are popular.  Workers who fought for unions at the height of the most egregious corporate abuses knew that kinship was key.  Humanism is a force for good, not to be vilified.  Without it, we fracture and fall.  The signers of the Declaration of Independence knew this.  The figure known as Jesus Christ knew this.  Mohammed knew this.  Buddha knew this.  Mother Theresa knew this.  Artists, musicians, poets and philosophers have known this.  Scientists know this.

When will those of us in the middle recognize it, stop talking about it, and actually act collectively on this knowledge for a greater good?  I think expecting elected leaders, business moguls, and celebrities to do it is not only passing the buck, but will only frustrate.

What this means can be manifested in multiple ways.  Maybe they will not all be strictly compatible, maybe we’ll see a cobbled together set of actions that overlap, a messy vision in action that is dramatically different than what we have now.  Driven by collective humanity that is not drugged, not locked away, and willing to broker a different reality.

Hope must spring eternal.

I am too lazy for that

Ok. I admit it.  I watch Battlestar Galactica (the new one) on the net after it posts every week.  With my husband.  After the kids are in bed.  It is a delicious, silly treat.  Somewhat akin to reading fiction in bed as a child, with the flashlight (dad did not encourage me to read fiction, he said it was junk).  But like the Star Trek fans of old, there are people who make costumes, go to conferences to meet actors and discuss plots, and in general show a high degree of focus and energy on these things that it makes me shake my head.  Live and let live, but I am just too lazy to do that.

I also read about how pro-anorexia and bulimia sites have ballooned on the net, in all languages thinkable.  I looked at some of these sites, trying to understand what goes on in these peoples (not just female anymore) heads, hearts, and bodies.  Aside from feeling very sad, because there is a grain of truth in the sentiments that each site echoes about how women (and men, particularly young men) are valued, I also thought:  I am too lazy to do that.  The discipline and obsession required to pursue those sorts of eating disorders is just not something I could pull off.  In addition, I like cheese too much.  And bread.  Really good bread.  And fruit, fresh fruit. . .and garden vegetables. . .and grilled meat. . .and pasta, tossed with fresh tomatoes and mozzarella, or clam sauce. . .mmmmmm. 

Ok, I digress.

Digressing is not focusing, I tell myself. I realized with many tears last week that as creative as I can be in problem solving, I am just too lazy to really get crazy about anything.  Even when I was dating, I couldn’t get too worked up about anyone who wasn’t more obsessed with me than I was with them.  I usually became friends with the people I dated, because I was just too lazy to do anything else.  Being angry takes way too much energy, and there seems to always be something more interesting to think about.  Now don’t get me wrong.  I can be stubborn when it comes to gross levels of injustice, and inconsolable when it comes to issues of profound evil.  Yet going over the edge about anything, especially daily habits, seems like a lot of work.  It takes enough effort to keep a level of structure in my life that keeps the recyclables going out every week, the floor picked up, laundry done, family fed, my mind and the garden reasonably cultivated, and so forth.  To simply stave off chaos requires a lot of work.

I tried being a vegetarian for a while when I was younger (and single) because good meat was expensive, and I wasn’t very good at cooking it.  It didn’t last long.  My mother used to tell me with a high degree of irritation in her voice that I “always fell into things”.  I think what she meant was that I wasn’t disciplined enough to choose and chase any particular activity, and that all the mistakes I made were not particularly by choice, but due to ignorance and laziness.  You can imagine, it frustrated her greatly.  It frustrates me now, to think about all the opportunities blown, the paths not taken. 

I see some of this in my eldest son.  He is very easy going; some call him “happy go lucky” (not to be confused with Holly Go Lightly, at least I hope not).  He did not cry for the first year of his life, but would do this strange grunty thing when he was upset.  We used to call him the growly bear with chicken hair (he had very blonde, wispy, unruly hair that stuck out everywhere).  He is usually a very sunny child, and many people remark upon it.  He has developed an impish, rebellious side though and for that I am grateful (even if it sets me off from time to time).  But usually, he is an easy to please, happy, go-with-the-flow sort of little guy.  The down side is that he too can be manipulated, and coerced into things he would rather not do, and sometimes be the butt of a cruel child’s joke.  He does not understand it when this happens, and neither do I.  As I said, it takes way too much energy to be mean, and there are so many better things to do.  

Husband disagrees with me as I read this to him.  He lists all the times I stay up until three to finish a book, or “go like a terrier down a rabbit hole” when doing research and trying to find out about a subject.  I tell him this is not obsession.  I say this is not the same thing at all as the comi-con fans, the eating-disorder women, the muscle heads, the political wonks, the bunny boilers, the rebel flag wearing gun-nuts, or any assortment of folks that do not fill the role of “hobbyist”, or even earnest endeavor, but rather something quite a bit more, something bordering on the crazy, something that requires a large amount of energy, time, and not a drop of laziness. 

I think one of the core trusts we have in this country, the comfort, is knowing that no matter how crazy anyone seems to be, how different, how engaged in things utterly alien to some, that these things usually are not truly harmful and usually are not really obsessive.  Even differences that are core to our identity do not usually cause harm, and do not fit the term obsessive, but rather descriptive. 

In general, I think we have all come to trust that one of the things about living in the U.S. is that we are our own worst enemies.  If our government at all levels manages to keep infrastructure going, and stays out of our personal lives above that line of actual harm (not theoretical, an important distinction when dealing with religious nuts who want fascist reforms), if the economics of this country allow for most to work for livable wages under conditions that are both fair and encourage good work, creates considerations for those who can’t contribute in traditional ways, and the greater good is achieved not by excluding others, but by trying to work that complex space of “liberty and justice for all” (the under god part was tacked on very recently by the way, and nothing the Heritage Foundation says or does actually encourages any part of the liberty and justice part, no matter how much they wish to copy-right the verses)— well, then we do as we can and as we like.  This lays the foundation for the best R&D imaginable (with good education and funding) because it opens up the realm of the imagination, and experience.   We trust that people can make costumes for themselves, role play; collect rocks, books, cooking utensils, baby shoes or nail clippers; that people can have organizations that are specially formed for the discussion of these interests, and can lose themselves in these activities.  We trust the utter craziness of this social experiment we live within, and shrug when we see the array of parades and web sites for every damned thing imaginable.  It is when we forget that this is an important part of our lives, when we try to suppress or actively harm people who are different, that we lose.  Because as we do this to others, so can it be done to us. 

I should not have to repeat but I will: this is not to say there should be no baselines of law established.  But those baselines should restrict those who do actual harm, and do more encouraging of actual liberty.  Economic coercion of individuals and groups is not acceptable either, because in practice (as we currently see) it does the same thing as suppressive laws, and not nearly enough economic support for liberty and fraternity, or general social good (I will not even go into the financial support of corporations as individuals, one of the most insane definitions ever made in financial law).

It takes an enormous amount of front-end energy to set systems to do good, and an even larger amount of energy to suppress, harm, and manipulate after the fact.  Some say not being engaged in this process at all is the position of apathy, or laziness; and that this leads inevitably to chaos.  Also, most will angrily add, this requires that others become obsessed, “do all the work”.   That Hen making the bread story meant to teach children sort of thing.   Oh, in all things entertainment related, being lazy is fine- encouraged even.  But when it comes to being a citizen participation is essential.  I do not disagree.  But participation and obsession are two different things.  I’ll participate to establish those golden means all at once necessary as well as unattainable.  I know this requires a constant level of knowledge and action.  But I can’t get obsessed. Eternal vigilance may be the price of liberty as Milton Friedman posited.  But can one be vigilant and jubilant as well?  Can we take care of our daily lives with some degree of finesse, attend to the greater good, and still have time for Battlestar Galactica?  I hope so.  Because if not, be afraid.  Be afraid for us all.  Because most of us, most of us are just too lazy for that.

 

Needs and wants

There seems to be a lot of discussion right now about what defines need and want. Both are categories of desire.  Need is most clearly defined by the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy: food, shelter, safety. Included above this is some vestige of social connection, a form of intimacy akin to love- that thing without which babies die (see the studies regarding this from mid-twentieth century), old folks slip into afflictions and die, and the rest of us suffer depression and a variety of illnesses.  Abraham Maslow (1943) developed a pyramid of levels to represent a complete individual that has been revised from time to time, but the basic ideas have stayed the same.  There is a line on the pyramid, below it are needs and above it are what we might call wants.  Above the line categories include respect, achievement, creativity, self-determination.  Our founding folks might have seen these as the basis of the “pursuit of happiness”.  So are they really wants- or another form of needs?  I suppose it depends on whom you talk to. 

Many wealthy people in this country think cutting back on their monthly liquor orders constitutes privation.  They will also tell anyone who listens that everyone else, those making below 50k a year especially, ought to just suck it up and cut back.  They shake fingers and cluck, some massaging their conscience with a few dollars thrown at a charity (for which, as Blago of Chicago made clear, they expect a return in money, big parties, and other benefits).  No health insurance?  Too bad you are not “talented” enough to find a good job with benefits.  Need extra tutoring for your kids?  Daycare?  Too bad.  You should not have had children you can’t afford.  The list goes on and on. They strut around at cocktail hour, palms open, telling their friends “what do they expect?  Of course our companies/banks/businesses need the bailout.  We are the ones who keep this country going.”  The unquestioned assumption that big salaries, and big compensation packages are also necessary, needful things; this fun-house mirror of self regard and privilege is horrifying.  Finding out recently that a high percentage of the businesses getting bailout money operate core off-shore tax havens and that much of that money is being funneled away to these havens is also scary.  It all points out that the modus operandi for too long has been nothing more than greed driven to the extreme, and instead of being the foundation for a healthy, complex economy– undermined it entirely.  Like over-mined ground in West Virginia, the ground is collapsing and everything that rested on top is caving in and becoming toxic.  The fires that burn below in the mines of Pennsylvania will burn for thousands of years (http://www.offroaders.com/album/centralia/centralia.htm).  Let’s hope this metaphor for our financial system is a little less long term. 

Maslow had it right I think.  In a very pragmatic way, we know if people don’t have basic needs met their lives spin out of control, and even worse, they die.  I don’t think the vast majority of people in this country are confused about the difference between needs and wants, and they don’t need daytime talk show hosts to wag fingers and wax poetic about the uplifting opportunities for self improvement by learning to live with less.   What most people seem to need is parity between those who want to believe they are the caretakers of our systems, and those who have little control over them. Business journalists held hands over their collective mouths until the holidays had passed, and now are starting to blather forth all the bad news they held in.  It’s gonna get a lot worse, and no one is really sure how much worse.  Where have you gone Nancy Reagan; ketchup never was a vegetable and a full belly is a basic need.  We can’t wish or talk away the realities of what is happening.  The time for blame seems to have passed when the government is giving life boats to the very wealthy while yelling into the megaphone to look the other way, these are not life boats, they are some thing else, um, yeah, bailouts that will make everything better.  Just keep your noses to those rapidly sinking grindstones, and we’ll give you a couple hundred bucks at tax time (and take it back in the now $17,000 per wage earner that will be needed in taxes to fund the bailout).  When the ship is going down, those scions of business and culture will be off to their private islands stocked with alcohol and say it was everyone else’s’ fault. The nut-bags plan to hole up in Idaho, and as one blogger put it, “I’ll have the guns to come take your organic gardens, liberals”.  No, we have no time to blame.  

What do I need today?  I need a laugh.  I need to clean my house.  But more importantly, I need to know I can feed my kids, get them adequate medical care, and keep a roof over our heads and clothes on their rapidly growing bodies.  A solid elementary and secondary education is essential as well.  For myself, I’ll skip a meal or two but I can’t live without the laughs. It is way too dark for me, and many others, right now.  We have to find a way to laugh without sticking our heads in the sand as many conservatives would have us do.   We have to find a way to channel our anger productively, and act.  When we suggest a state-wide schools strike involving students, parents and staffers in the local newspaper comments section (in response to the announcement of deep cuts in public schools as the first place to plunder now that the state is broke) it is rapidly removed.  There was no foul language; it was a short, thoughtful, polite comment.  Do we need or want to speak out?  How about both? Perhaps it is doubly necessary, this need to speak, to form consensus, then act– no matter how scary it seems to those in control.  The ship is sinking.  What do you need as it does?  What are you going to do about it?

All politics are local

I am writing this with the uneasy sensation of being hung-over, yet I have not been drinking.

I worked the polls (that’s POLLS not poles) Tuesday from 5 a.m. until I walked in the door to my home after 10 p.m.  I had no real breaks all day, and only had two monster java drinks and two doughnuts, and an orange to eat all day.  I was not in my home precinct, but had been assigned to one near by.  It happened to be an especially entrenched GOP loyalist precinct.  Of the roughly 2400 registered voters in that area, approx. seventy eight percent had voted, and of that, seventy five percent went straight ticket GOP.  Of the eight people working that site (all women), there were only two Democrats.  One was new.  New people in small cliques that have worked together often, and know each other reasonably well, are usually met with suspicion.  Educated Democrats who are new–well, are treated with special contempt.

I am still struggling with what to say about the experience.  It was exhausting- that much I know.  I was ill from a virus (the runny nose, sneezing, achy joints variety, which my kids also had- and I brought my own tissues and hand sanitizer to share) and that didn’t help.  I felt like an intruder, and that was exacerbated by the clique somewhat.  I was put off by the managerial skills of the young woman who was captain, after her phone message ordered me to get down to the county offices to learn the computer system, new this year (I had never spoken to her before), and meet the day before elections to help set up the site.  I had already attended one required “training” day at the county offices, a two hour affair with handouts for which I was to be paid thirty dollars.  I had been sent a letter several weeks prior explaining each worker also rec’d two hundred and forty dollars for election day.  At the training day, one week before the election, we were told it would be one hundred forty dollars.  No explanation about the change.  To back out on the commitment I made months ago would have been wrong I thought, but it stunk that they pulled a bait and switch on the pay.  I was also not pleased at the last minute required meetings as I have two small children and no one was paying for childcare for those meetings.  I called the captain back and politely told her I could not go to each new meeting, that she should choose which she thought was the most important and I would find childcare.  She chose the computer training, and asked if I had ever worked on a computer.  I dryly replied that I had a PhD and had been working with computers since 1982.  She appeared not to have heard me.

I went down, one son in hand, and “learned” the software.  It took me about three minutes.  I cannot imagine anything more simple, and was pleased it was such an easy database system.  It replaced the old paper poll books, and proved to be very useful for input and cross-referencing.  I volunteered to be one of the two to use it first on election day, and ended up being one of two people using the computerized poll books and ID scanners for the first five hours, which turned out to be our rush period.

The six ladies working the site were between fifty-five and seventy-one years old, and had done this many times before.  The captain was a young, recently married woman who by her own description had not traveled, or really gone beyond the limitations of where she grew up.  The older women reminded me of my mother and her friends, the biddy buddies I used to call them, and the area is very much like where I spent my childhood.  These women were unfailingly polite, offering to share the soup, sandwiches and snacks each had brought.  They carefully avoided discussing politics, as is the law at these events, but animatedly discussed their grandchildren and lives.  They also had polite curiosity about me, showing sympathy when I called Husband to ask how the kids were feeling and if he had been getting them to drink enough.  But the underlying current was clear:  I did not belong.  It was also clear that there were agreed upon ways of doing things that I had no power to comment upon.  The most egregious being the talk of prayer before we began, and the required group prayer before opening the doors.  I knew where I was though, sucked it up, and wrote it off as one of those when in Rome, local custom things.  But I am still annoyed about it.  When small talk popped up late in the afternoon, I was asked what my husband did.  I told them.  “Oh, one of those.”  was what the woman sitting next to me actually said.  I was surprised to be on the defensive about him, and said “He works in metals, he’s not a jerk.  More like a big big geek.”  The response went ignored.  I was also told by a couple of the women that they were not “into book learning”.  These well dressed, well spoken ladies were not stupid, and were not some sort of back woods hicks.  They had much more in common with their suburban evangelical counterparts around D.C. than they know.  

I am used to people thinking at first that I am “one of them”.  White, middle aged, soft looking, has kids, I don’t know what all.  Many people around here speak in front of me assuming tacit agreement with their points of view.  People speak of race privilege, but “passing” for a bigot or a fool is not something I relish, and have usually sought to reject with humor and wit.  They knew here I was not one of them from the get go, and I did not have to do anything to make that clear.  

Delegating tasks was not something the captain was very good at, and the women were expected to step in through some sort of telepathy they had as part of a crew.  I grew resentful of being brushed off when I did step in, or with annoyance when I did not jump in, or know what to do.  Breaks were never scheduled, but assumed to happen whenever people felt like it.  And in this crew, it seemed a point of pride to only take very small breaks if any.  I offered to switch jobs with people, which also should have been scheduled, and felt like a third wheel when I did.

Many people were first time voters, coming with parents.  Excited and nervous, they would solemnly hand over their ID’s, confirm their identities, then take their ballots and walk off to vote.  The very old and the very young came in, some parents bringing young children and explaining to them what they were doing; some parents were pushed in wheel chairs by their gray haired off spring.  Turn out across the county had been exceptionally high all day I was told.  At a macro level, it was exciting.  I wondered what the rest of the country was doing, and when people from other precincts stopped in to talk, we were told about long lines.

The last voters entered minutes before seven.   The most disturbing thing of the day occurred when a young African-American woman, dressed like all the college students do in sweats and flip flops (per many who had come in that day), came in and was wrapping up a phone call as she checked in.  The women were guffawing under their breath, and I think she had the good grace to ignore them.  She used the touch screen and left.  When she walked out the door, a series of exclamations about her apparel, and her manner (and cell phone use) and her hair arose.  I said nothing, and was shocked by their responses.   The very last voter soon entered, a youngish man proudly struggling through the doors on his crutches, and we all cheered as he approached the desks.  He was known to several of the ladies, and I was told he had Parkinson’s.  I checked him in, he voted, and left.  The meeting hall rang with the sudden silence.

After the doors closed, the captain tallied the numbers and all was put to rights over a few hours.  One of the women commented she thought it had gone well, and that we were leaving long before many of the other precincts would. 

I am ashamed of how exhausted I was at the end of the day, and of how much I needed to get home and check on the boys, of how defeated I felt at how the local elections had gone, and of how much I let my annoyance affect my attitude at that point.  I am also naturally shy, and saying goodbye was not something I am very good at.  We all left for our cars, and I waved, and was not very vocal.  I had appreciated the experience and their collective generosity, but was also uneasy and angry that I had once again been unable to respond to the subtle bigotry, and felt again the outsider, the object of suspicion and sometimes contempt. IS this my country?  IS this my county?  IS this my city?  IS this as much my home as theirs, or anyone else’s?  Why can’t I be myself, and feel as smug and self satisfied as anyone else?  I know part of the answer.  Because my identity is not rooted in who I exclude, who I fear, or who I think I am different from.  As such I cannot be smug or self-satisfied, but at the very least, should be able to feel comfortable and at home as we all should– especially when coming together to do a civic duty.

I worked the polls for my mother as much as anyone.  She had been gradually becoming more and more the model citizen before she was diagnosed with cancer at fifty-nine years of age, racking up several hospital volunteer pins, and always being current on local election issues and helping out.  I know if she had lived, she would have entered a whole new phase of her life; probably without my father, in the terrific shape she had been cultivating for a few years, and with ever more community involvement (but probably in an entirely different town and state).  She showed me by her example how to be congenial, how to get along, and how to be vivacious and social.  None of which I believe I picked up.  She also showed me how to be involved, not on a grand scale, but on a useful local scale.  So I signed up to work the polls this year as a silent tribute to her, and to know I did it when Barack Obama was elected President of the United States. And it was no certain thing that he would be elected.  Not around here.

The Obama sign has been on our lawn since his candidacy was announced after the primary elections.  It was stolen on election day.  There are many more McCain/Palin signs than Obama in my neighborhood, and certainly a greater sense of freedom to put stickers on one’s car if one is a Republican, and fear to not express oneself if you are anything else.  The local newspaper is egregiously biased to the far right, and trash talk radio is extremely popular around here.  It is, as I have been told, smart to know how to blend in- especially when travelling in the county.

When I got home, I shed my clothes, picked up one of my husbands’ old sleep shirts, and crawled into bed with a handful of tissues.  I cried, and told Husband that I was depressed, that I wanted to live in a place where I was not constantly feeling like an outsider, where I felt good about raising my kids, and where I did not feel like I needed to wear a mask outside of my house just to get along.  I said I felt weighed down and trapped by our mortgage, our house, and our student loans; but luckily not by him or the kids.  I told him I knew all these things were wearing him down too.  I said I didn’t know what we could do for a living, if we moved somewhere else and there were no academic jobs.  I said I didn’t know if anything was ever going to change, that life was short, and I didn’t want to end up like my mom.  Mom who knew she had spent a large chunk of her life treading water in a place she didn’t want to be, doing things she didn’t want to do, because she thought it would be best for her kids and because she was afraid she didn’t know what else to do.  She only realized she had options, and could take them, and then was told she had terminal cancer.  The irony was not lost on me, and went unspoken by her.

I was afraid to watch the election results.  I passed out and slept.  I woke up needing desperately to blow my nose, some time before 6 a.m.  I crept around and plugged in my laptop, and checked the results.  I found myself listening to Obama’s acceptance speech, and I cried again.  This time because I was out of energy for anything else.  I could not whoop, I could not smile.  I just felt, for the first time in a long time, a sense of irrational hope.

It will not change where I live, how poor we are, or our obligations to our extended family.  It will not make my region more civil, open minded, educated, or kind.  It might not even have any real effect on the U.S. or the world.  But it might, just might, make living here a little more freeing, even if it is just in my mind.

 Addendum:  Two days later, I am still annoyed.  But a friend I know in town had been at a gathering with people we know and their kids on election night told me, “At one point we were all looking at the TV and then I said Carol is working the polls right now.  No one said anything.  Then several people said I feel better knowing she is there.”  It didn’t make everything better, but she validated my efforts in a way all the new voters, kind patrons, and general feelings of good duty done did not.  This particular friend had been living in one of the counties in Florida in 2004 that had egregious voting shenanigans, and out right voter intimidation occurring that went completely ignored.  While that did not happen this time, here– I am glad to know my participation helped some others who are outsiders feel a little better about where they live.