Parts and Soul

I took 17 days at Christmas to finish writing a novel. I had a couple of ideas I wanted to write up first. And then a couple more. And then I had this collection. I haven’t finished the novel yet.

April 7, 2012 at 4:15 pm Leave a comment

Eating the Bait Afterword: November 2009

(The version of Eating the Bait I’m selling on Amazon is little different from the one posted for years on my website. I added what’s below in 2009; I ran and lost in 2010.)

During the 2002 City Council election I met and fell in love with Deb Stevens, now Deb Stevens Fitzgerald. It was during one of our earliest long conversations that I began to realize how much of a story there was in my vote to continue the golf course. She asked me in disbelief if I had really not decided until that day to vote for the golf course, if I had really done it on the spur of the moment. “Not exactly,” I told her, and exactness wound up taking the 20,000 words you hold here. Deb and I married in 2003, after the end of a marriage that may or may not have been doomed before I ever decided to run for City Council. It seems that way now, ten years out, but I don’t claim to have known at the time.

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April 7, 2012 at 3:59 pm 1 comment

In a Harrisonburg minute

Isaiah shouldn’t have shared the picture of Amber. But then he did take her to the hospital, so I guess he had the right.

And the sheriff probably shouldn’t have released the picture of Colin, but then he was more or less required to by law.

Amber and Colin were the same age during the campaign of 2012. Both held deep beliefs that they chose to express in part by working to elect political candidates. They both probably felt like something about their world would end if the other side won. They may have been right, allowing for some mild dramatic exaggeration. But that exaggeration is what makes it possible for them to do what they do. They’ve graduated college, and the whole world lies in front of them. But they want to change that world by working in politics for less than they could make racking a nail gun, living a few months at a time in other people’s houses, putting in 12 hours on a short day, working in offices that Chicago’s worst health inspector couldn’t be bribed to pass, and making more cold calls than a siding salesman.

There may be something romantic about it, but there’s nothing glamorous.

And if you asked either of them who they worked for, they probably wouldn’t tell you. Not because they were trying to hide anything, but because they might not really know. “I work for Obama.” That might mean I work for “Organizing for America Virginia, a project of the Democratic Party of Virginia,” or as they call it, Chicago. “I work for Romney.” That might mean I work for Pinpoint, the temp agency that took over the payroll contract after the Republican National Committee fired Strategic Consulting because of allegations of voter registration fraud.

Amber’s picture was an iPhone shot of her in the hospital bed. Gorgeous but thin, she didn’t have any body fat to live off of when she began working for the campaign. The hospital gown looked like a sheet draped over a stick and she was wincing from the pain of whatever it is that happens when a healthy young body rebels against its occupant trying to live off diet Pepsi and determination for days on end because she doesn’t want to live in that country the other side is promising. Isaiah only showed it to a couple of people that I know of and I was just sort of standing there when he did.

The sheriff only released the one picture of Colin, but the picture’s been widely reproduced and widely altered. In one he’s compared to a character from a horror movie I haven’t seen. In another, he’s holding up a Romney-Ryan bumper sticker where the prisoner number would be. It’s the kind of picture you can wind up with when you get too intense about trying to stave off the end of a way of life that hasn’t existed since before your parents were born. It’s what happens when a bunch of voter registration forms wind up in a dumpster, and the car that drives away is parked later in front of the local Republican Victory Office. (They weren’t victorious, but then we call our similar operation the Coordinated Campaign, and it’s not either.)

I have dozens, maybe hundreds, of other pictures of Amber, but then I have similar numbers of pix of Isaiah and Rebecca and Jon and Sawyer and the other sleep-deprived twentysomethings. What they seem to have in common is a look of deep intelligence. That look may exist on the other side, but I don’t know a lot of them and most of the ones I saw on Election Day had a look of testosterone-fueled rage. Once circled the Obama HQ and various polls all day in a jacked-up pickup, honking his horn to draw attention to the Romney and anti-Obama slogans on his truck. We spent our gas money on vans to take voters to the polls. A bunch of boys on their side tore down all the Dem yard signs at a couple of the polls late in the day. Our side had forgotten to put any signs up earlier in the day, because they were focused on voter contact. Guess who carried the city.

The other photos of Amber show a dark-haired, fair-skinned young woman wearing a tiny pearl most of the time. They’re all flattering, except for the scowling ambush shot I agreed to destroy after she promised to help me with some volunteer effort or another. (I’m sentimental and charitable during a campaign, but nothing’s free.) I have lots of shots of the young man who limped on a swollen foot for two days because he was registering voters. Isaiah had to take him to the hospital, too. He delivered 1,300 registration forms to the municipal building in one day. Amber’s in that picture with him, along with a dozen other smiling, exhausted volunteers.

There’s just the one shot of Colin. His head is bowed a little bit, maybe in shame or disgrace. The widow’s peak of his close-cropped hair looks off-center. If I’d been the jailer, I might have offered to shoot a better one. I heard second- and third-hand that he sometimes showed up at the municipal building, but with only a handful of forms. We don’t know if there were others, or what may have happened to them, but Virginia’s attorney general is looking into that.

Amber carried her city on Tuesday. She’s got a bright future in politics, but wants to teach instead. Colin had a preliminary hearing on Monday. I hope he doesn’t have a future in politics, but he might be a folk hero on that side. I don’t know what he wants to do.

In one of his darkest songs, Don Henley sings, “What the head makes cloudy the heart makes clear.” Which isn’t quite the same thing as saying it doesn’t matter how much you believe in something, reality can still intrude, but it’s close. It doesn’t matter how determined you are, your body can only take so much. It doesn’t matter how much you believe in what you’re doing if the law says you can’t do it.

I’m guessing Henley may have borrowed the line, at least in concept, because I know he did the other great line in the song. “Somebody’s going to emergency, somebody’s going to jail.” It’s how every street fight ends. Maybe we should have campaigns instead.

November 7, 2012 at 11:51 am 3 comments

Some things you can’t just throw out

The best choice would have been to throw out the registration form.

I don’t know if that was the young man’s first choice, but it was almost his final one. The form was just one guy, and there was some error I don’t recall, and the young man had been registering people in the state for only a few days, and, and, and . . .

And the only answer was, you can’t throw it out. The reasons are almost religious. I registered in high school, and have only missed one opportunity to vote in those thirty-eight years. (My boss was supporting the conservative in a Senate primary, and I liked John Warner, and the boss sent me out of town before the election and after the absentee deadline. I’m sure it was a coincidence.) The argument finally boiled down to, you just can’t. And he didn’t, and the guy got his form back and did whatever he needed to to re-register, and the young man was equal parts victorious at registering another potential Democrat and relieved at not having decided to cheat. Because this is why this country doesn’t have juntas taking over the TV stations and occupying the airports, and why we have to all play by the same rules. Register, vote, register, vote, register, vote.

But it’s admittedly easier to be pure on this side of the aisle, the Democratic side. New voters tend to vote for Democrats. Right or wrong, good or bad, they do. It’s a number. I’ve joked for several months that every new registrant at JMU is .79 Democrats. For all I know the number is right. I know it’s close. And I’ve enjoyed thinking about that number as I’ve watched the Find Them and Remind Them approach to grass-roots campaigning. Registration and ID calls are like the NFL draft and the pre-season, and the final weeks of the campaign are the playoffs.

So I’ve been wondering for the past few days what could have possessed someone on the Pub side to throw out a handful of registration forms. And as the ideas range from the blundering to the sinister, I wonder a little what they were doing registering people to begin with.

Part of the reason Florida in 2000 remains a metaphor for continuing national deadlock is how well it captured the best strategies for both parties. Bush was ahead by a gnat’s ass. The Pubs needed to freeze the results. The Dems wanted to open up the process, because they had nothing to lose, but could claim they wanted every vote counted. Imagine a world where you can say the right thing and mean it. Twelve years later, the Pubs want to freeze the field and not let new people register and vote. That’s why they make it harder. Statistically, they’re not making any more Republicans. The Pubs need to keep the ones they have and block new ones, and that need hasn’t been kind to the registration and voting process.

There are sacramental rules to registering. How much you obey them varies. In my church, you take smaller sips as the chalice empties. You can’t refill it, because the rest of the bottle hasn’t been blessed yet. In a friend’s church, her mother takes the leftover bread to feed to her chickens. Maybe some sacrament had been skipped. The form was filled out by a felon, the form was late, the ink colors didn’t match on two parts of the form. All that is the voter Registrar’s problem. He or she has to decide if the form is good and keep it or reject it.  But that might not be apparent in a party that’s often perverted the idea of personal responsibility until it’s impersonal and irresponsible. (My grandmother didn’t personally earn the Black Lung benefits she lived on for twenty-five years but she watched her husband die at age fifty-six after a shortened life in the mines. Forty-seven that, Mitt.) In a party that’s raised blame and accusation to ritual status, I can picture a young man with dicey forms fearing for his future enough to just throw them out.

Which is the blundering idea.

Then there’s the idea in the middle. That’s the idea that they were just throwing out the forms of people who were likely Dems. Some folks have asked how you can do that in a state that doesn’t register people by party. You can do it by age. Younger people tend Dem. You can do it by surname. Some ethnic groups tend Dem. And you can do it by a two-minute conversation while you’re registering. “How about that debate?” “Yeah, the man kicked some butt.” Depending on the debate, you keep that one or toss it. It’s not that complicated. But it still leaves you wondering why those people were registering voters to begin with, if most of the new ones are on our side.

So maybe they were throwing out all of them. Maybe they were registering people and tossing the forms just to take the folks out of the voter pool. If a voter thinks he registered in Elkton he has no reason to walk into the Obama office on Court Square and register again. But can’t those people check their registration status online? Sure they can, but people who register on impulse at a street fair or a table at the mall aren’t necessarily obsessed with the process. Don’t they get receipts? Well, they’re supposed to, and maybe they keep them. Maybe they don’t.

That’s the sinister interpretation.

We’ll never know which of these it was, and it will be like seeing a roach skitter across the floor. Are there really ten more inside the wall, or did that one just sneak in somehow? You hope there’s just the one, but you’ve been told to expect there are more. I doubt the more sinister ideas, but the fact remains that the other party hired a firm accused of using questionable tactics to register voters. They fired the firm when questions arose this year, and then they rehired the firm’s employees. It doesn’t help the system to assume an innocent motivation on their part.

Because any system works less well once it’s corrupted. A church works better when it’s saving souls than when it’s fighting contraception. A bank works better when it’s making mortgages than when it’s designing Collateralized Debt Obligations. A school works better when it’s trying to educate students than when it’s trying to create employees. A registration system works better when it’s just trying to get people to vote. Any people. Anybody.

At the end of the day, it’s hard to know how you’d judge the young man accused of tossing the registration forms. If you judge him on result, you have to know whether this changed an election or just screwed a few individuals. If you judge him on intent, you have to know if the reasons were blundering or sinister. If you judge him on what’s already happened, it’s unclear how things get worse. Everything about his resume indicates he wanted to make a living in the political system. People don’t take unpaid internships or work in campaign offices because they want to make money. At least they’d better not. National exposure in an incident that may have corrupted that system would seem to end that career path. I feel sorry for him, but not enough to want a Romney presidency.

Like anybody, I have to wonder what it would be like to hold in my hand the one piece of paper that might decide the next election, that might make Obama or Romney win Virginia or the nation. If I held that one form and I knew what it meant, would I have the conscience to accept the result either way? But there’s a world of difference between being faced with that choice, and going out to recruit voters knowing you might try to stop them. Besides that, it’s worth noting that over thirty years, a gubernatorial race, an attorney general’s race, and a senate race in Virginia have been decided by 6,700 votes, 300 votes, and 9,300 votes. You never know. Any one of us might hold that piece of paper in our hands in a couple of weeks.

October 21, 2012 at 3:32 pm Leave a comment

Karma, and the Worst Election Ever

The worst election I ever dealt with was probably the one where everybody got sick. Or maybe it was the one where Sid thought he’d won. There are so many different layers and types of worst that it’s hard to cut it fine enough. And there are too many ways to define awful.

But here’s one way. Stuff kept being stolen from my apartment in Petersburg. I hadn’t known my girlfriend that long and was starting to wonder if maybe I shouldn’t have given her a key. But it turned out that someone had a key to the vacant apartment next door, and was climbing into that attic and through the connecting space. I finally found out what was happening after I nailed the windows shut. The thief couldn’t get out the windows, so he had to scramble back out of the tiny attic opening in the bathroom. He turned over a set of shelves on the way out, and left footprints on the wall, evidence he’d never left before when he was dropping in and walking out onto the top of a connecting porch.

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September 6, 2012 at 9:10 am Leave a comment

Julie and the Mayor

There is a woman working in the Charlottesville Old Navy who would look just like Jodie Foster if her hair were not black. I noticed her and knew I could do a couple of things. I could stalk her around the store until I figured out who she looked like, or I could ask her if she’d ever been told she looked like someone famous. She reacted with the appropriate embarrassment and said, yes, that actress in “Silence of the Lambs.” I saw it then, and would have figured it out except for the hair.

It made me think of Julie, who did look like Jodie Foster, light hair and all, or at least she did when she had the hair cut to just past chin length, except nobody ever noticed it. Maybe it was because she wore her hair longer when she was at the newspaper, or maybe it was because she was so self-possessed that she could mirror Elvis’s claim, “I don’t sound like nobody.” Or look, in her case.

Julie was technically beautiful, but it was rarely an issue on the job. (more…)

September 6, 2012 at 9:06 am Leave a comment

Absence of Motion, a story that’s not about Paul Newman

One of the best movies ever made about American newspaper journalism was a potboiler called “Absence of Malice.” And it had one major thing in common with “All the President’s Men.” It had somebody running up to a car. In the one movie, Paul Newman’s character ran up beside a car to find out who was following him. In the other, Dustin Hoffman ran to the corner where Robert Redford had stopped to pick him up. Neither scene had much to do with the plot of the movie, but both showed up in the movie trailers. In each case, the scene was used because somebody moved.

And there should be a law, and it should have a name, and it should be named after somebody who edits movie trailers for a living. It would say that in order to suggest or promise that somebody will actually move in a film about a profession where people talk on the phone and type, you’re going to have to pull something out of context. (more…)

September 6, 2012 at 9:04 am Leave a comment

Paying for “White Rabbit” – Again

(From November 2011)

If you had a good memory, and some ear for music, you might know just the right note to hit the button to switch tracks on an 8-track. The tune was just about over and you wanted to hear the first notes of the other one, and you’d learned just when to shift. If you were really good, you might know that hitting the track button twice would take you from the end of “Heart of Gold” to the beginning of “Old Man.”

On a cassette player, you learned when to hit reverse. On Patti Smith’s “Easter” I knew when to reverse it to hit the opening of “Because the Night.” I may never have heard that tape in the order it was recorded. I may never had heard the end of one side or the beginning of the other. (more…)

September 6, 2012 at 9:01 am Leave a comment

Orange Ken

Ken couldn’t wait for his 50th birthday.

Maybe that’s because he enjoyed it so much the first time.

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September 6, 2012 at 8:59 am Leave a comment

Older Posts


Parts and Soul

Eating the Bait

Previously . . .