Democracy at the door

Donald Trump has been President of the United States for 1,294 years – I mean days – and I have bitched and moaned and cried and cussed about it almost EVERY single one of those days. And yet, he remains president. So, I came to a realization in early June that I needed a new strategy for getting rid of him and I applied to be a Field Representative for Progressive Turnout Project – a grassroots-funded organization with the sole mission of getting Democrats to the polls.

I do not want to go to bed on November 3rd with the devastating thought that I did not do everything I could possibly do to prevent Trump from being re-elected. I know that feeling. November 8, 2016. The mere mention of that date makes me experience COVID-19 symptoms.

And that is how I found myself interviewing for a young person’s job at my seasoned age. The pandemic mandated that the interview process be virtual – on an app called HireVue. The first interview consisted of answering five questions recorded by different people – no live interactions. It was weird, but fortunately my bestie Carla had introduced me to the Marco Polo app earlier in the pandemic, so I was used to talking to myself.

The second interview was with two live women young enough to be my daughters – that I had at 40. They were both bright and energetic and didn’t seem horrified that I was a mature applicant. Our conversation went well, and they offered me the position the following week. Yikes! I was really doing this.

Project Turnout is headquartered in Chicago and my training was three days on Zoom with about 75 folks from other battleground states. The trainer was perky and had a good sense of humor. I found him amusing until he started explaining who the organization’s core donors are and said, “You know your liberal aunt who watches way too much MSNBC? That’s our base.” Wait, that’s me! I felt like the other 74 people were staring right at me in my Zoom box.

I met some nice folks in the breakout rooms during training. They were all so young, but I found that exciting – they were smart and so politically engaged. I only felt old during the ice breaker on our third day. We broke out into smaller groups and were asked what our walk on song would be if we were running for president. I thought that was a fun question until the trainer started calling on people for their answers. OMG. I had NEVER heard of the first half dozen songs. I thought I was safe with my answer – Lizzo’s “Like a Girl” – until the person before me used it. I panicked knowing I was up next and before I knew it, “Girl from Ipanema” fell out of my mouth. Shut up. I know I choked. NO ONE in my group had any idea what I was talking about. Thankfully, the trainer moved quickly to the next person and I could melt from mortification in the privacy of my own square.

My first day in the field – we call it Turf because we’re hip like that – coincided with a heat wave. A certifiable “feels like 104” heat wave. If you have known me for more than five minutes, you know that I loathe summer with a passion. I hate the heat and fear the sun. I’m a fair skinned Irish girl who adheres to the schedule of a vampire during the summer months, so I was filled with high anxiety as I hit the steamy streets.

I left my house with enough water to float a pontoon. All kinds of water – tap, seltzer, Vitamin Water. All the waters. And ice. And frozen washcloths. That’s a trick I learned years ago. Put a wet washcloth in the freezer overnight and pack it in a cooler for your day in the sun. Pull it out when you start to melt and put it on top of your head under your hat. Trust me – it can save your life.

I was so afraid of dying from heat stroke on the streets of a foreign neighborhood that I really had no fear of knocking on the doors of strangers. I was armed with my iPad that contained the scripted questions we are to ask the registered voters we speak with. Oh, and, of course, we are following strict COVID protocols – wearing a mask and stepping back six feet after we knock on a door. So, do not whine to me about a mask making you hot, okay?

The first day went well except for our iPads overheating. Note: iPads will do that when exposed to the Seventh Layer of Hell. We were encouraged to take breaks as needed and our supervisors delivered ice packs later in the afternoon. There is simply no way to adapt to that kind of heat and I have even more respect for folks who work outside in the elements. It is damn hard, and I am damn old.

I had worried about bathroom breaks while in the field – especially in this pandemic. Not to worry – I sweated so much those first two weeks that I NEVER had to pee at work. And I was slurping up liquids like Tom Hanks when he cracks open that coconut in Castaway. It was the most physically demanding thing I’ve ever done and when those two weeks were over I felt like I had won Survivor: Forsyth County – especially when some of my much younger teammates were complaining about how tired they were.

The other thing that got me through those sultry first weeks was some of the great interactions I had with voters. I am amazed that anyone would open their door to a stranger these days – during a global pandemic. I wouldn’t – unless it was a 12-year-old girl holding a stack of Thin Mints. But so many people have opened theirs and engaged with me in substantive conversations about their voting habits and their concerns for the upcoming election.

People have been so kind to me. Some have invited me inside – we are not allowed to do that. Many have offered me cold water and lots of them have told me to “keep cool” or “be careful” – one very elderly man even offered to walk me to my car because he was concerned about a neighbor’s crazy dog.

All these people have at least one thing in common besides their kindness – they do not want Trump to be re-elected. They are deeply passionate about getting rid of him. These are my people. Funny thing – I bet I was in the field three days before I even heard someone say Joe Biden’s name. There might not be a lot of enthusiasm for Uncle Joe, but there is a freaking ton of enthusiasm for giving Trump the boot. Whatever gets us there.

My favorite moments have been the conversations with first time voters. I spoke with Victor – a sweet Latinx man in his 30’s who just became an American citizen and will be voting for the first time in November. He is concerned about immigration and education – he has two children. And I’ve talked to several 18-year olds who are excited about their first vote. They want to make a difference. These people give me hope.

Our lists of contacts are highly data driven – focusing on inconsistent Democratic voters so I have only run into two Trumpers so far. Once the mark of the MAGA is revealed, we are instructed to say thanks for your time and move on. I listened, no doubt with glazed eyes, to a woman who told me that Hillary believes in abortion in the ninth month and that Joe Biden is a pedophile. My inside voice was screaming “FAKE NEWS” but I managed a wan smile as I bid her good evening. And then I remembered the grizzled veteran I met who usually votes Republican but is voting for Biden in November. My pace always picks up with those thoughts.

This work has also been a humbling reminder of my white privilege at times. I ended one evening speaking to three young black women in a row – all single moms with children. It was after eight in the evening and they were weary from their day, but they opened their doors and talked to me about their voting habits. One of the questions we ask is how likely you are to vote in November – on a scale of one to five – five being very likely. One of the women said to me, “I don’t really know. I’m not even sure who is running.” She seemed embarrassed and almost apologized. I told her who was running and that she had nothing to feel bad about. This woman wasn’t stupid – she was worn out – from the day, from yesterday, from tomorrow. I could feel her fatigue – she had gotten her kids fed and would soon be putting them to bed – and yet she took the time to talk to me – the liberal aunt who watches too much MSNBC.

On the drive home that night, I thought about what a luxury my obsession with politics is. I grew up with parents who instilled in me that voting is a precious right and that every vote counts. As an adult, I have had the time and sometimes the means to work for and support candidates that embraced issues important to me. I have been to endless fundraisers and sipped cheap white wine while someone droned on and on about what they were going to do for me. I have been inspired and I have suffered painful defeats. I have been afforded the invitation to participate and the arrogance to believe that my presence can make a difference.

Our field canvassing has been suspended because of COVID concerns and we are now phone banking, texting, and letter writing. When I got the news, I thought of Oscar Wilde’s famous quote, “When the Gods want to punish you, they answer your prayers.” Yes, I am out of the heat, but I miss seeing the faces of the folks I’m talking to. There is no more effective communication with a voter than an in-depth conversation in person. And besides, you can tell a lot about a person by the way they treat a mature masked white woman in a bucket hat on a hot day.

I hope I’ll be out there knocking doors again soon. It is by far the hardest work I’ve ever done. And, without a doubt, the most important.

OK Zoomer

Do you want to Zoom? After “What’s for dinner?”, this is perhaps the number one most asked question during this COVID-19 quarantine. Kids do it, grandparents do it, even educated nerds do it. Seems like everyone’s doing it, but that’s not necessarily a good thing. Bless their hearts.

SNL comically captured this Zoomundrum on this past Saturday night’s digital episode. In a skit, co-workers, including two women who serve as support staff, hilariously portrayed by Aidy Bryant and Kate McKinnon, connect on a Zoom staff meeting. They are Zoom virgins and their discomfort and fear with the technology is palpable. At one point on the call, Bryant’s character carries her laptop into the bathroom – not knowing that she is still on camera. Watch it on YouTube and thank me later.

Now let me be clear – I am far from technically savvy, so I’m not throwing any cyber stones here. I’m just making a few observations and trying to get your mind off what you’re going to make for dinner. My community service during the time of plague if you will.

So, here are a few personas I have observed in my glut of Zoom gatherings:

The Newbie. This person is taking the plunge because someone they love asked them to, but they are clearly out of their comfort zone. Once they enter the Zoom room, they have a panicked look on their face – like they’ve gotten on the wrong flight. Their eyes are darting around all over the place as if they’re looking for the exit door. The first words they utter are usually, “Am I on?”. When someone answers them, they almost jump out of the screen as if they’re hearing the voice of God. It’s okay, newbie, everyone remembers their first time.

The Hostage. This Zoomer acts like they are being held against their will. They slip in without saying anything and are usually sitting in dim lighting in a room normally reserved for storage – like you can see the tubs of Christmas decorations in the background. They rarely participate and sometimes even forget to blink. They can’t wait for the meeting to be over.

The Showoff. You know this person. They’ve downloaded all the “cool” Zoom backgrounds because well, this isn’t their first Zoom rodeo. They just can’t wait for someone to comment on their backdrop and gush about how clever they are. I find these backgrounds disturbing. I was on a Zoom with a guy who had the Golden Gate Bridge as his backdrop, and it looked like he was going to jump. Very distracting.

The Chatterbox. It doesn’t matter if this person is in a room with you or a Zoom with you – they are always going to talk the most and interrupt the most. And annoy you (okay, me) the most. Pro tip: Eye-rolling must be nuanced on Zoom – never forget that the camera is on.

The Unmutable. This is often a subset of the Chatterbox. This person is oblivious to the mute button and will often provide unnecessary – and unwanted – commentary on whatever the center square is saying. They also often tend to ignore the other folks on the meeting who are pleading, “Mute your mic!”. I think it’s fine to throw in a quick on-screen eye-roll if they continue to not mute.

The Family Guy. This dude is quarantined with a large family and thinks the best place to log on is the kitchen table, so we get to see his cranky kids and black Lab running in and out of the screen frame. The dog is adorable, but stay in your square, man!

I’m personally not accepting that many Zoom invitations. And, no, it’s not because I’m 100% that bitch. My dear wife is a psychotherapist and has been seeing her clients via teletherapy for the past month. We live in a 1,200 sq. ft. condo and her new office is our dining room table. It has been a stressful transition – for her, for me, and for her clients – many of whom are older and not used to such technology. God bless ‘em for being game for keeping their appointments. Sometimes it takes a while to get them connected, but everyone seems to be getting with the new normal as the days go by.

My wife is the poster girl for Good Boundaries (something I deeply admire about her) and we are strictly adhering to HIPAA guidelines. She has a white noise machine she has running during her appointments and if I’m home – I’m in my office with my headphones on. Our cat has tried to interrupt a few sessions, but she isn’t one to talk out of school. That said, I have enjoyed hearing some funny stories when my wife is done with work. A few weeks ago, she called a client who had not logged on for her appointment. The client answered the phone and when my wife reminded her of the appointment she said, “Oh, yeah, but I’m not wearing a shirt.” True story. Note: She found a shirt before she logged on.

At the end of the day, my wife is absolutely fried. She thinks teletherapy is more difficult than in-person therapy for a myriad of reasons, but she’s profoundly grateful that she can continue doing her job during this pandemic. And I feel really good about her job security since I think therapists, after hairdressers, will be the busiest people once we are released from our COVID captivity.

The last thing she wants to do after work is join a Zoom anything. She often takes a walk or steps outside for some fresh air. We both enjoy the silence at the end of the day and a no screen zone for a bit. And then we’ll have some dinner and relax with a nice Netflix drama about serial killers.

I appreciate that Zoom has been vital to enabling people to do important things from home – work, worship and stay connected to family and friends, but I find myself defaulting more and more to old school communication as this pandemic wears on. I’ve always been a note writer, but I’m rapidly depleting my robust stash of cards and stationery. There’s something so intimate to taking pen to paper to communicate with another human being. And isn’t it nice to get something in the mail besides a bill?

I’ve also been reminded that my phone can be used for something besides texting. The other day, I was on the phone with my best friend from college for almost two hours. I was aware that my right ear was getting kind of hot, but I had absolutely no idea we had been talking for that long. It was delicious and I felt so much lighter after our conversation. She lives in Berkeley, CA and has been living in quarantine since early March. The reality of COVID-19 is much closer to her and I am reminded to be grateful that NC is weathering this mighty storm pretty well.

Maybe Zoom is working for you and if it is, that’s great. I just know that I need to connect in a more visceral way with the people I care about. Here’s the thing, it doesn’t matter how you do it, just stay connected – to others and your own humanity. At the end of the day, it’s our only superpower.

Well, that and Amy’s frozen pizza. Stay home, stay safe.