Wednesday, October 31, 2012

a worm's eye view of the ground game

I’m writing this before the sun comes up on Hallowe’en morning. A lot of time and history have passed since I arrived in Florida September 1st.A devastating megastorm has come and gone up North, leaving a nightmare in its wake, and the battle for the presidency still rages on, but is near its close.

The large tube of toothpaste I brought is now small, I’m measuring out my remaining shampoo and I’ve trimmed my bangs twice. A week from tomorrow, I’ll step back into my real life. I am halfway out the door already, but meanwhile I am very much here, exhausted, but also more intensely unexhausted than ever.

We are all nail-biting nervous, trying not to read the fluctuating polls. Neck to neck might be fun with horses, but not with issues this important. If my hair weren’t already gray, it would be now.

I am astounded by the dishonorable nastiness of the other party, both in matters enormous and petty. Of the latter variety: a large bill-board size Obama sign here is spray-painted black, then shredded. Almost every Obama yard sign has been ripped out of its lawn and stolen and too often replaced with a “Fire Obama” sign. The mean-spirited, stupid pettiness of this disgusts and depresses me. As a new friend says, “The gene pool needs a little more chlorine.”

But then I’m heartened by the huge numbers voting early, even though the “souls to the polls” Sunday before election, the day when Black congregations traditionally voted—has been arbitrarily eliminated. Early voting ends this Saturday, and then no one can vote (except by mail) until Election Day.

If ever I were to be involved in a campaign again,   it would be to make Election Day a national holiday. If nobody had to work that day, much (thought admittedly not all) voter suppression--which should be a Federal crime-- would be eliminated.  How do we as a nation allow such things to continue?

But back to the present campaign: I recently found notes I wrote  during a conference call last June for all wannabe-Obama Organizing Fellows. I’d liked the sound of the  basic philosophy of this campaign: “people-centered, metrics driven” even though the only metrics I knew about at the time had to do with the beat of a line of poetry.

I now know about the other kind. I know about data-entry, reporting  several times a day at precise times, counting door-knocks and turf packets and phone conversations and much more that I will never need to know or use again--for which  fact I am grateful. I bumbled my way to some proficiency through “retroactive learning,” which is a polite way of saying I  screwed up, forgot, or messed up—and then found out what it was I was supposed to have known all along.

So here’s a worm’s eye-view of the ground game. For nine weeks, I’ve literally been a bag lady, toting necessities with me every day, from my laptop and phone and their chargers to a now shredded map of Clearwater, roll-on deodorant—which friend Louise  told me would stop the itch of mosquito bites (she was correct) first-aid supplies, an umbrella in case of rain, a hat with a visor in case of sun, bug-spray, a water bottle, an extension cord (never know where a plug will be vs. where my computer needs to be) a cardigan (in case the air-conditioning is set too high) and a small soft cooler with food for the day.

Ah, food. I’ve been eating like a homeless person trying to avoid a perpetual sugar high. This “job” runs from 9 a.m. till 9 p.m. (or later) with no days off at this stage, and no breaks. We work right through those times formerly known as “lunch” or “dinner.” The office had no refrigerator, no microwave or heating element to warm water. There was instead donated food as in: cupcakes, chips, cookies, banana bread, Coke and recently, piles of Hallowe’en candy. So along with the list above, into my bag went turkey and beef jerky, cheese-sticks, apples, almonds, yogurt, a salt-shaker, and Publix’s pre-made salads (complete with a wee plastic fork nestled in the greens.)

I look forward to using the bag to tote groceries home, to eating cooked food, to sitting down at a table with people I love and without a single interruption. Not a text message, an e-mail, a phone call or those metrics to enter into the data-base between bites. At one point, when the variety of interruptions was overwhelming and went on for hours, I posted a large sign above my desk that said: IS THIS ISSUE LIFE-THREATENING? I’m not sure it deterred a single disruption, but it made me feel better, and made me laugh.

It’s not all reports and metrics. It’s also people-driven, and I’ve met some wonderful women and men, worked with (for) an amazing 22 year old whose mind moves at warp speed, and crossed paths with characters worth remembering. For example, a woman who did do door-to-door canvassing for us—under an alias.  “Mary Smith isn’t my real name,” she whispered. “My landlord doesn’t want me working for the Democrats.” I doubt her landlord was apt to burst into an Organizing for America office and check the sign-in list. Sometimes, both sides of the gene pool need chlorination.

Lest I grow cynical, there are people who are so generous of spirit, so amazing that they restore my faith in humanity and possibility. Here, as one proof, Ursula. When everyone was exhausted from the intense push of voter registration, I asked them to re-up for the get-out-the-vote phase. (This is called “the hard ask.” It is very very hard for me.) The Saturday after I sent that message, I received this e-mail from Ursula, a woman in her late seventies. It said: “Dear Judy, I’m sorry I didn’t answer right away. On Wednesday, I had a heart attack and went to the hospital. On Thursday, they put in five stents. On Friday, they released me. I can work for you this coming week.” 

It’s nearly time to enter the day’s first report and get myself to the staging location. More doors to knock, more calls to make, more volunteers to recruit, more data to enter, more infuriating, incredible someday-we’ll-laugh-about-this-moments. It will also have the bittersweet knowledge that life in the ground game is coming to a close.

There’s no need for me to write the denouement of this adventure—we are all going to write it next Tuesday at the polls. So farewell to bloggery, with a toast to a happily ever after conclusion—or if not ever-after, I’ll settle for four more years.

(p.s. I can’t resist—it’s now a reflex, so I’ll say—even with only a few days left, or especially because of that: help!!! Contact your local office and make some calls. Help make what you want to happen really happen. It’ll make you feel good, I promise.) 

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The test of an adventure...

October 10, 2012

I have loved this quotation by Thornton Wilder for a long time. It used to be theoretical—a wonderful, probably true observation. Now it feels the motto of my days. Here tis:

"The test of an adventure is that when you're in the middle of it, you say to yourself, 'Oh, now I’ve got myself into an awful mess; I wish I were sitting quietly at home.' And the sign that something's wrong with you is when you sit quietly at home wishing you were out having lots of adventure."

I am having myself an adventure and a half, and yes, during the past few weeks there have been moments of thinking I’ve gotten myself into an awful mess, and experiencing desperate homesickness for everything I love. I guess that’s good news because who doesn’t yearn for adventure? But I never dreamed I’d be having mine in Florida?

Voter registration is over here as of yesterday. It has been incredibly hectic, tense and successful. It has meant twelve hour work days and no days off (my decision. Necessary. Except today—a day off! Almost…I have a meeting about the next phase this evening…) Getting people registered has obsessed me and I’m still in the reflexive habit whenever anybody mentions a local site or event, of thinking “Could we send somebody there? Will they toss us out? What would be the best time?” (And also sometimes: would any volunteer actually go stand in that parking lot around midnight? Really? The answer is they wouldn’t, and I wouldn’t ask even though it’s probable that the people milling around there at that time aren’t registered...)

I am still an angry old lady, still infuriated by the covert voter suppression in effect in this state. Perhaps corporations have the right to not allow VR inside their stores—but to not allow it in the parking lots? To actually pull one of our volunteers away from a public bus stop insisting that the shopping mall owned that piece of pavement? But even if that is their right, there should then be  state-backed safe and convenient registration sites. Every time I’ve seen a photo on the internet of a table set on a street corner with a sign: Register Here, I know it wasn’t snapped in Pinellas County, Florida. Here, we’ve too often had to be secret agents, avoiding the security guards on parking lots, behaving as if we were committing a crime, not performing a civic service.

This is plain wrong. As is cutting out the final Sunday of early voting because last election, the black churches of Florida bussed their congregants in to vote that day—and helped win the state for Obama. So now that day is gone. No explanation, no justification. Just gone. 

And on the other, happier side, there are the stories. Each person who volunteers has a reason, a personal story of why this election is important to them, and many of them touch the heart. So many volunteers are coping with multiple jobs or no job at all now, huge family obligations and serious physical limitations (e.g.: in the past week, a paralyzed boy in a wheelchair entering data, an exuberant young man on dialysis going out and doing vr as long as he could stand the heat, and a man on the phone, near tears, calling to tell me he couldn’t come in to do vr the next day, as important as he knew it was, because his beloved cat was dying and he had to keep vigil.) I don’t know if any of these people are Mittens’ 47%, but they are people with stories and passions who care about all our futures, and it’s been a privilege to get to know them.

I also love getting to know our amazing Field Organizers. I have never seen people work so hard, so long, and so constantly. I truly love my F.O. who won’t let me call him my boss, but who is. His mind seems capable of handling ten things at once, and his energy boggles my mind. He also could be my grandson. I have consistently joked about that, and about how old I am. It apparently didn’t fully take, but a few weeks back, he offered me a paid position with the campaign. I was surprised and honored. He read my resume (I had to be vetted again) and said with surprise, “You were teaching high school the year my mother was born.” But apparently even that didn’t help register the fact that I am an ancient person. It took until he phoned me that evening and said they didn’t have my birth date anywhere, and what was it. When I told him the year, this incredibly smart, sophisticated young man whom nothing rattles said: REALLY??? REALLY??? And then he was speechless. (I turned down the job. I didn’t want to test out whether I could physically or psychologically stand working till midnight every night with no days off…He’s 22. I am not.) 

But I’m apparently not too old to be running after a moving car early yesterday morning when I thought I’d lost a stack of voter registration forms. We have to account for every single form the state issued to us—thousands--and we’ve been told that not only will we be fined by the state 1K for any single missing form, blank or not—but if it was filled out by someone trying to register, which these were—then by losing them, I’d also committed a federal crime. About forty federal crimes in fact. The driver didn’t hear me and shot off (he is also 22 and drives like a 22 year old) and this old lady returned to the office in despair, only to see a tiny stickum note from my F.O. saying he had come in after I left (I left at 9:40 p.m. That’s what I mean about their endless energy and the hours they keep) finished the forms I’d come in early to complete and all was well. That car speeding away was taking them the Supervisor of Elections.

I’m allergic to caffeine, so I generally do not have a great way to wake up when exhausted. I’ve now found a new way. Believe you've created a whole stack of federal offenses and run screaming after a moving car first thing in the a.m. It definitely gets the adrenaline pumping and then the day is yours.

On the (temporary) home front, things have been complicated as well. I’m staying with an 85 year old ball of fire—or a woman who fit that description until two weeks ago when she began to be ill and finally wound up hospitalized for five days with pneumonia.  She is now home and recuperating, and she’s given my angry old lady persona more to deplore: Florida’s health system. Do other states send an octogenarian with pneumonia home without filling her prescriptions at the hospital? The next morning, I found her on the phone morning trying to find out what pharmacy had what she needed to breathe.  Time to take out my angry-old lady umbrella and bring it down on Florida’s head!

Our jobs now shift gears into getting the (Democratic)  voters actually voting. More phone calls, more canvassing, more recruiting volunteers.(Have I mentioned that the actual me acutely dislikes talking on the phone and dreads asking anybody to inconvenience themselves?) This phoning, asking, phoning more, asking more alien who has taken over my body in Florida (did I mention how much actual and alien me loathe humid heat?) surprises and amuses me.

The good news is: I will no longer have to be sending out stealth-registrants, saying “stay till they ask you to leave. Easier to ask forgiveness than permission.”

These final weeks will be hard work--and fun: I’ll be talking to Democrats, to Obama supporters and not to the people who reluctantly or enthusiatically enforce the dictates of those shadowy, despicable “corporate says no” folk. No more bums’ rush. Just a rush to the polls. Less than four weeks to go...Four weeks for four more for 44!

The adventure continues.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Angry old ladies, the bum's rush and fish heads

Here I am again, a little later than I meant to be. I’ve been waiting for a burst of inspiration, a gestaldt binding everything together and giving me a handle about how to encapsulate the past ten days.
       Alas, Gestaldt’s R Not Us. Life continues to be a busy jumble of intertwined yet fragmented moments, parts of a whole I can barely sense. There is no routine. I switch, sometimes within minutes, from phoning potential volunteers to entering data, to training people, to doing voter registration on the street, to counting forms or collating packets, to attending a meeting, to answering questions—in short, to doing whatever the moment requires.
       It’s my nature to ask ‘why? What is this for?” 
       But this past week I stopped asking that, and/or looking for the whole picture. The whole is enormous—people like me all over this country, more and more and more of us. (People walk in off the street every day saying, “I want to help.” It makes the heart sing.) The whole picture would show an intricate, brilliant ever-enlarging web of connections so of course I can’t see to its edges or really know it’s shape.
I am one wee part of a huge organism. I am a worker bee, a drone (and I mean that in the nicest way). I don’t understand how the hive works, only my share of it, but I do understand that if I—and the other drones—do our bits, then the hive definitely will work.
       And so I drone on. Happily.
       There are highs and lows along the way. A high for me recently was registering a ‘forgiven’ felon who will now vote for the first time.
       Lots of kids who messed up with drugs or cars or other foolishness decades ago are now disenfranchised middle-aged citizens. So when we register people, we carry information on where felons can check whether they’ve been forgiven (doubtful) and/or how to begin the process towards that. It’s lengthy, and filled with red tape according to “my” felon.
       At first, he waved me off with an “I don’t vote.” His wife stopped him. “You can now! Do it!” And after some hesitation, he took the form, writing, then stopping to talk about the years it had taken him to regain his right to vote. It was an emotional moment and one I’m glad I got to share. We were all beaming when the form was complete.
       (Speaking of felons: last night, I was on a telephone bank and politely asked for a man we’ll  call “Bernie Smith.”
       Bernie?” a woman’s voice that scalded my ear said. Bernie  Smith? That @#$% is in Federal prison for fifty years so stop calling him!” 
I don’t think Bernie’s ever going to get his rights back, but I love the little (maybe not so little) stories that even some of these brief contacts suggest.
       Sometimes conversations can be downright silly. Office phones are used for the phone banks. They aren’t personal phones, so they don’t ring—except when one of them did. When I answered, a voice straight out of a horror movie—a low, slow, uninflected growl is the only way I can describe it—said, “Why. Did. You. Call. Me.”
       I said, “You called me. Who is this?”
       He said, “Who. Are. You. Why. Did. You. Call. Me.”
       I told him who we were and tried to explain why he’d been called, but he interrupted.
       “Don’t. Ever. Call. Me. Again.” He had overlong pauses before and in between his growled out words. Creepy, but I was not about to do or say anything that in any way would reflect poorly on Organizing for America or Obama, so I promised we wouldn’t ever call him (and we wouldn’t) if he’d tell me his name. I thought perhaps he was impaired, couldn’t speak normally. Couldn’t think quickly.
       He grumbled again about not being called.
       We went back and forth—don’t call me/tell me who you are so I can remove your name/don’t call me…
       And then I no longer cared if he thought less of me or Obama and I said I was busy and couldn’t talk anymore and I’d have to hang up if he wouldn’t tell me his name.
       And he said “Bah.”
       I waited (for the “Humbug”)  Silence. I asked again.
       He said, “Bah.”
       I said, “Do you think you could tell me your name? Do you need more time to think?”
       By this time, everybody else in the office was watching, amused…
       He said, “Bah.”
       I will spare you how long this went on with the long pause, the question, the next long pause, another few demands that I never call him, and another “Bah.”
       And I finally said: “Please. Maybe you could spell your name for me?”
       I had to ask a few times, and then he said:
“B…….A…..” Nothing more although it took a while for me to realize that.
       Mr. Ba?
       Had I committed an ethnic slur?  Embarrassed an incapacitated man with an unusual name? Had all the “Bah’s” been attempts to answer me? After further prodding, he gave me his first name and hung up on me.
       The odd postscript is that I did try to remove Mr. Ba from the call list, but he didn’t exist. Not with his first and last name reversed, not with initials, not anywhere at all.  I wonder what the whole long call was about. Somebody furious about being called, but so paranoid and angry he wouldn’t tell me the very name he wanted removed?
Mr. Whoever. He. Was will undoubtedly be called again. The difference will be that this time, I’m not answering if that call phone rings.
       Less trivial or funny has been the bum’s rush that we’ve received at almost all corporate owned retail sites. We aren’t inside the store or blocking access to anybody’s building—we’re out near the parking lot, standing and greeting people with the question, “Is your voter registration up to date?” That’s all. And of course we register anybody and everybody.
       But way too often, an embarrassed looking store manager comes out to say that alas, Corporate won’t allow “soliciting.” Ah, we say, we aren’t. We’re doing a civic service. The law says so.
       It doesn’t matter. “Corporate” in its far-away office, says no. And the process of requesting and getting permission from Corporate takes forever. “If we let you do this,” one manager told me, “we’d have to let everybody else do the same. Why,” he added, ”if somebody had a petition to burn the Holy Cross, we’d have to let them do it.”
       Did he not have High School English? Did he pass his S.A.T.’s? Where is the analogy there? We’re simply trying to enable people to vote…
       Of course, we are trying to get the people who were shut out by voter suppression rules to vote. Republicans are not out on the streets registering people. This is more suppression, this time orchestrated by remote corporations, and it infuriates me because we have no support of our rights from the state. How could there be? Four weeks before the election, the governor here is trying new ways to purge the polls.
       It upsets me to read newspapers calmly report how Obama is ahead in the polls, but of course, he might lose because of voter suppression rules in so many states.
       A sentence like that should not be calmly stated. This is a democracy. A sentence like that should be a screaming, outraged headline. We should be protesting, loudly, constantly that this is the antithesis of who we are and should be.
       In lieu of that, I’ve been busy, happy, exhausted—and angry about the malevolent shenanigans designed to warp our democracy completely out of shape. However, taken all together, it’s given me a new personal creed:
Nothing on earth can stop an angry old lady.
 Here I am: angry, old and unstoppable…
       And finally—time out, a trip to nearby Tarpon Springs with a fellow Fellow. (These masculine labels confuse me. I’m a Fellow who will be manning an office tomorrow. That’s just wrong, but what’s the female version?)
       Bet you didn’t know that Tarpon Springs was once the sponge capital of the world. Neither did I. Time, sponge plagues and plastic have reduced its prominence but it’s still a place where the men who harvest sponges live. We watched an interesting film about the hard life of a sponge diver, and it included one thing I can’t seem to forget.
       The diver needs to eat during his long periods out at sea, and sponges aren’t gourmet fare, so he spear-fishes. The film showed him preparing his catch (or if speared, is it his impaled?) for dinner. “I get this part,” he said, lifting the head. “I have to eat the head because I looked him in the eye and I killed him.”
       I’m not sure I understand it, but it nonetheless haunts me. Is there something about Romney in it? Obama? Angry old women? Life?
And now, back to work.
Thirty-nine days to go!

(p.s. immediately after writing this, I received news that the administration here is being sued for reneging on their earlier agreement to stop these shenanigans. Good for that immediate reaction—bad that it has come to this.)

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Yellow Speedo Man

Wednesday, September 19: 

This week men of several varieties fill my memory, but of them, The Yellow Speedo Man figures, er, prominently.
To back up: we’ve got only till October 9th here in Florida to register or re-register voters, and as everybody probably knows, the entire process was  dramatically slowed this summer by legislation that made it nearly impossible to meet the state’s requirements.
Those impediments, like those in other states were designed by the GOP to keep Democrats away from the polls. Now, most of them have been lifted, but obviously, we’ve got to work double-time to catch up.
So voter registration is occupying my time—doing it, scheduling it, finding places to do it (which is humorous given my total ignorance of this area. I sit with maps and map-books, and google every address…argh!) and finding people to fill those slots.
A week ago, another ‘fellow’ and I went out to an apartment complex. There we were, two gray-haired women with clipboards, knocking on doors and asking people if their registration was up to date. We are non-partisan, registering anybody and everybody (though of course hoping…) It was hot and muggy (or does that go without saying?) providing a sort of steam-room stair-master exercise session as we knocked doors upstairs and down.
Everybody with whom we spoke was polite, and many, as always, thanked us for doing this. And then a man in a yellow Speedo bathing suit appeared on the sidewalk, not far from us and proceeded to bellow: ‘WHAT ARE YOU DOING? YOU’RE SOLICITING! YOU’RE NOT ALLOWED TO SOLICIT!”
We gray-haired dangerous ladies reminded him we were not soliciting, not selling anything, that what we were doing was legal, a civic--
There he stood, in that horrid bathing suit, shouting: “YOU’RE INVADING MY @#$!!!! PRIVACY!”
       It is my personal conviction that a man in a yellow speedo is not one to talk about invading anybody’s privacy. What about mine? His speedo most assuredly provided T.M.I. and I wished I could say so…
Instead, we decided to ignore him and continue on, but then he turned and truly threatened us and we left the place laughing about the twerp and his “privacy.”
Whenever I encounter somebody who is rude about voter registration attempts (and I should say it’s rare, but it happes), I know they are part of the populace who wanted those restrictions to stay in place, so no wonder they’re perpetually angry.
The opposite sort of man who figured in my life this week was President Obama, who took time out, in a day when the tragedy in Libya dominated the news and his attention, to do a low-key closed video computer conversation with the Organizing for America fellows to say thanks for the work. He talked about listening to people, hearing what they are trying to say. The man is a mensch.
Things continue to spin and chug and any other energy-laden word you can think of. I have had moments this past week when I am living the nightmare where you’re given a final to take and you realize you never took the course!
So I often feel a little like a hamster must on his wheel—except that I know there’s a goal in sight and that whir is the sound of moving toward it. Every day the sign changes in the office, how many days left to the  election. I don’t know what analogy to use to convey the sense of urgency—a tied championship game with the clock ticking down those last few seconds? 
I am, however, repeatedly struck by how didfferent this campaign’s operation feels from the other side’s. Ours is completely about people, the incredible numbers (growing) of volunteers reaching out to still more individuals, registering them one by one, talking with them one by one (and listening!) The other side’s impersonal tsunami of money drowns all of us with ads. Robots who can’t listen, can’t understand what the person on the other side wants or worries about, make their phone calls. Humans make ours. And we listen to the person on the other end. To me, it’s the difference in the two sides’ political philosophy reduced to a micro-scale.
I continue to be geographically challenged. I feel elation when I realize I actually know where a street is, but more often, I am crossing four lanes of traffic to get to where I can make a U-turn into the other direction. (Who designed these streets? Who requires U-turns on 6-lane divided roads if you actually missed your target? And why aren’t addresses on these interminable long, long “blocks”? To whom may I complain???)
And speaking of geography: Paul Ryan was here this week. (I assume yellow speedo was in the audience.) He spoke to his crowd about how all-important Pinellas County is—and the I-4 Corridor (I must look that up on my map collection. I have no idea what it is—another of those damnable U-turn highways?)--except that it’s vital to taking the state. He’s right. It is all-important—and his words got me  fired up to work even harder. That I-4 Corridor, whatever it is, is ours, dude!
I am constantly amazed by this new life. Could there be more of a change from a silent, contemplative writing life? I thought writing deadlines were tough—these daily clock-ticking, time-eroding deadlines put the leisurely publishing deadlines to shame. But after 17 straight days of work, I yearned for a break and Monday, for the first real time since I got here, I took the day off, and aside from the joys of doing laundry, I went for a walk on the beach with the lovely lady with whom I’m staying. Beach! Florida! Not the I-4 corridor or the tense polling or the nail-biting worry about who will vote how. Florida! White powdery sand and for once—blue, blue sky and no storm. (Of course, it is raining as I write this, but Monday was beautiful.) A lovely time to clear the mind.
It almost makes the mosquito bites I’m now scratching worthwhile.
And now…back to work. 48 days to go.