Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Bird Tales

If you saw the 1993 movie, Jurassic Park, or read the 1990 novel of the same name, you remember that birds of today descended from the dinosaurs roaming our planet hundreds of millions of years ago.  The geese nibbling at the pond’s edge, the hawks hunting field mice and the chickens pecking away in the yard all have distant cousins in their family trees a lot bigger and just as hungry, all looking up one day, saying, “Hey, check out that asteroid!”

We’re reminded of this fact moments into the newest installment in the Jurassic Park film franchise as what looks like a giant T-Rex foot stomps on the ground until the camera pans back to show a harmless sparrow looking for lunch.  If only it had been a bloodthirsty carnivore hungry for the family we meet in the opening minutes, we could have avoided this entire mess.  It’s not that Jurassic World is terrible– it’s just not very good.

This movie, the fourth in the series, has the ingredients of a winner – the dinosaurs are fun to watch, the action sequences are exciting, the mysterious tropical island holds intrigue and the characters are not completely uninteresting.  But just like mixing heaps of buttered popcorn, a pound of Milk Duds and a wastebasket-sized orange soda seems like a winning plan, Jurassic World’s celluloid recipe left me gassy, sad and wishing I’d napped instead.

Jurassic World’s plot includes the key elements in a disappointing summer blockbuster – genetically modified beasts on the loose, career-minded single women learning how to love while sprinting through the jungle in high heels, and former military men who are both sensitive and smart or off-kilter lunatics hell-bent on turning dinosaurs into SEAL Team 7.  Along the way we see nitwit nephews escape from certain death, Jimmy Fallon appears and the requisite IT nerd with facial hair saves the day.  We’re taught important lessons, like “Don’t be greedy,” “Don’t be overweight,” and “Always buy vacation insurance.”  Based on the park’s security procedures on display in the film’s second half, the next installment should be, Jurassic Park 5 – The Lawsuits.  Apparently creating a theme park where ferocious pterodactyls might escape and attack from the sky created zero concern for duck and cover drills.

Over the course of two hours, good people live, bad people die, and we gird ourselves for the inevitable bloated semi-avian carcass of another sequel in three summers.
         In far fewer theaters the same week Jurassic World deposited its steaming pile of brontosaurus turds on the world was another bird movie of sorts.  I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story is a documentary chronicling the life and work of famed puppeteer Caroll Spinney, the man who created the characters Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch for the PBS series Sesame Street, growing both into worldwide loveable icons.  Released in a handful of theaters for a short time, I Am Big Bird shares moments from Spinney’s entire career and tells us, in his own words, how he came to shape an 8-foot yellow feathered puppet into an international symbol of a happy childhood, recognized from Bangor to Beijing and parts in between.
Spinney is a fascinating character.  Bullied by his domineering father and cruel classmates, he found his calling in puppetry, the film taking us through his start in the ‘60s, from Big Bird’s rise to global recognition and a trip with Bob Hope to the Great Wall of China for a first-of-its-kind TV special.  We learn about Spinney’s love-filled marriage, his professional challenges and see how Big Bird became an unwitting prompt in the 2012 Presidential election.  Spinney tells us how he and his Big Bird costume were invited to join the 1986 Challenger space shuttle crew on its fateful flight as a way to get kids excited about the space program.  A last-minute change grounded the large, flightless bird and his puppet master, saving Spinney from that disaster.  One can only imagine.

       Other than the creepy interlude of clips from The Bozo Show in the early ‘60s where Spinney got his start, the film is everything that Jurassic World isn’t – honest, simple and endearing. Spinney, in Big Bird’s character, singing a tribute to his friend and mentor Jim Henson at Henson’s funeral is sweet and touching, making me weep like a man who’s afraid of clowns.  In contrast, I shed no tears during Jurassic World, although I did get choked up realizing I spent $11 on this when I could have waited eighteen months for it to flutter onto my cable TV screen for a lot less.

         As Jurassic World’s box office take reaches into the hundreds of millions, I Am Big Bird might bring in a few million dollars when all’s said and done.  Both films teach lessons about the pursuit of perfection, whether it be building the perfect dinosaur or puppet, both rely on healthy doses of suspended disbelief and both place imaginary bird-like creatures at their center, except one wants to hug you and the other wants to eat you.  I prefer hugs any day.

(Jurassic World is rated PG-13 for dino-on-dino violence, dino-on-human violence and questionable decision making by most characters; in theaters in wide distribution for the foreseeable future.)

(I Am Big Bird is not rated but should be avoided by film lovers who hate hippies, puppets or adult clown scenes; available for rental on-line on a selection of streaming sites.)

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Football vs Football, or The Dumbing of the American Mind

Watching the Patriots isn’t healthy for me.  Since moving north two decades ago, I’ve seen the Patriots win a lot more than lose.  Division titles, Super Bowls, MVPs, GRONK – I’ve fallen hard for them.  But very little of it gives me joy.  Viewing a Pats game is a mix of angst, stress, self-loathing, terror, nausea and occasional exhilaration.  I fold laundry, stress-eat and stomp around, exclaiming to my dog (named “Brady”) and the couch, “It’s all over!” and “They blew it!” assuming the worst while hoping for the best.  I wonder if I should’ve been a Jets fan – that way I could assume the worst and expect the worst while taking my sad dog Rex for long Sunday afternoon walks.

In addition to the stress, I’m getting dumber the more I tune into the Patriots.  Like a wide receiver with cartoon pinwheel eyes after a big hit, I have a vague sense my brain is slowing down the more I watch, my prefrontal cortex congealing into useless goo, leaving me unsmarter and disintelligent.  Bombarded by constant banter, cartoon robots, graphics, music, statistics, replays and commercial after commercial, I’m a mental mess when the last whistle sounds.

I think I’ve uncovered the cure for this stress and my mental decline – watching more soccer.  Yes, that’s right – good old authentic “football” played in England and broadcast right into my basement TV lair.  Watching a live English Premier League game (or, “EPL,” as it’s known) is like a boost of vitamin B12 as my favorite record plays in the background.
A few weekends ago I sat down and compared an EPL game to the last Patriots game of the regular season, determined to prove my theory that less football and more soccer makes for a smarter, happier life.

I chose two games of top teams in each sport (Patriots and Chelsea) pitted against decent also-ran squads who’ve shown flashes of success but never for long (Buffalo Bills and West Ham United). Each broadcast was led by a set of two commentators, one the expert in play-by-play and the other a former standout professional in his respective sport.  In the EPL game, the team of Peter Drury and David Pleat called the match, and in the NFL tilt, Spero Dedes was joined by Solomon Wilcots, a six-year veteran of the NFL.  Both games played in front of sold-out stadiums with rabid fans ready for action, each team’s best eleven taking on the other’s.  And that’s where the similarities ended.

Consider how each set praised the players’ skills.  Peter Drury of the EPL remarked, “They find it hard to cope with Hazard’s twinkling feet,” “Downing’s take is a grave disappointment,” and “The position he plays suits him to the ground.”  In the Patriots game, Spero and Solly said things like, “He’s a talent,” “He’s got good instincts,” and the phrase all mothers want to hear said of their baby boys to millions of viewers, “He’s such a wide load to deal with.”  (Four hundred pounders have feelings too, you know).

Broader descriptions of the game were no less different.  During the Patriots game, I learned, “The Buffalo Bills came to play,” “They want to put more points on the board,” and “When players are playing hard, things turn out alright,” but in the Chelsea-West Ham game, Drury and Pleat described the action as, “Fresh, raucous and rousing – a match of genuine consequence,” and “Wonderfully intelligent, accurate intense play.”  When the British commentators mentioned, “He can twist, he can turn, and all the defenders can do is take a tumble,” our American counterparts offered, “I wonder if he hit a wet spot.”  Hamlet versus Charles in Charge.

After a point-blank save of a blistering shot, the West Ham goalie was, “So stately in goal –absolutely assured!” while the Bills’ wide receiver was described thus – “He’s done a good job.  The ball’s thrown to him, and he’s catching it.”  Comparisons of the lyrics of John Lennon to Kid Rock’s musings comes to mind.

The NFL commentators talked about “continuity and chemistry” a lot, using the phrase more than a few times.  They chose words like “execution,” “processing in his progression,” and the term everyone knows and loves, “consistency in organizational structure,” heard in huddles across playgrounds and sandlots across this great nation - “OK, Billy, you go that way.  Tommy, you run that way, and Junior, you focus on consistency of our organizational structure.  Break!”  At times it sounded like Dedes and Wilcots were giving a PowerPoint presentation to bank auditors – “It’s about preparation and execution, consistency and making sure the progression is being processed!”

Watching a Premier League game was far more relaxing, and even with so much at stake and millionaire soccer players – petulant prima donnas whining about phantom fouls, scratching and clawing for advantage – I felt calm and relaxed, Drury and Pleat’s words setting an erudite, thoughtful mood even if the action on the pitch was anything but.  At one point, as a West Ham defender took umbrage with a Chelsea attacker’s elbow, Peter Drury reminded us, “You mustn’t raise your hand to an opponent,” like a wise old uncle teaching ethics from an oversized leather chair in a dimly lit library.  He and Pleat went for stretches in silence, letting the crowd’s cheers and chants fill the void.  Spero and Solly, on the other hand, assumed silence was failure, filling every aural nook and cranny with, “They need to take care of business,” and “Their relationship was whole.”  What does that even mean?

Soccer uses words like, “cynical,” “clumsy” and “ambitious” while football repeat the terms, “consistency,” “stud” and “guy.”  During a five-minute stretch early in the second half, Wilcots used the word “guy,” more than dozen times, as in, “They thought they had their guy, but he’s not a long-term guy,” “Guys like Wilfork are guys to fuel the defense,” and recalling how the Bills’ coach referred to his quarterback as, “He’s not my guy,” and “He’s the ‘for now’ guy.”  Where’s ‘70’s punter Ray Guy when you need him.  If he were playing, we’d hear, “That Ray Guy guy is the ‘punter-guy’ guy.”

Watching soccer game makes me feel smarter, like I’m reading a John Donne sonnet (“The fullback forager makes a clever, splendid play”).  By the end of the third quarter of the Patriots game, I wondered if I was listening to an awkward semi-erotic page turner (“Let’s get this thing started.  That was a good pump fake!  He’s gonna take a lick – now he has to eat it!”).

See if you can guess during which game I heard the following sentences:  “He needs to create space between he and Vereen,” “He brought the crowd to their feet,” and “They ruled the ball incatchable.”  Now compare to, “The ball squirts up kindly,” “A gorgeously awaited pass yields an absolute peach of a kick,” and “They are a joy to watch – they play the game so smartly with such precision.” Ren and Stimpy versus Strunk and White.

Perhaps all of this is unfair.  No one tunes into an NFL game to improve vocabulary – we do to watch guys hit, outrun, push, pull and score lots and lots of points.  We accept that sixty minutes of game time involves no more than seven solid minutes of actual movement, we ignore the ads for toenail fungus and payday loans, and we expend more energy convinced our choice of shirt or beverage will affect the outcome than we do listening for erudite banter.  But I offer that the careful choice of words, words that elevate, sharpen and inspire - the act of deliberately choosing beautiful language to describe the human experience is what separates us from the primates – and Jets fans.  To accept anything less, in the words of Drury and Pleat is “only a temporary reprieve” from our stressful lives.  And making more time for soccer makes us all a little smarter. 

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Say YES to Winter!

I’ve never been good at New Year’s resolutions. Early January — that time of year to find fault with my previous 12 months’ efforts — brings out the “No” in me.
New Year’s Day means swearing allegiance to doing less in my life, convinced a new calendar offers the chance to negate all that led me to those late December doldrums. Bold proclamations of “This year I won’t gain any more weight!” fade by Super Bowl Sunday, when I solve the puzzle of “How many onion rings are too many?” by switching to nachos. Shouts of “I won’t spend money recklessly!” dissipate by Presidents’ Day when visions of spring break sunshine arise, and my annual promise to endure less of my winter indoors goes unmet the moment I reach for my single pair of wool socks and realize just how cold it is outside.
Despite neighbors’ wondrous tales of winter camping, backyard ice shows and dogsledding at countless holiday parties, I’ve rarely ventured far in winter, my New Year’s Resolution no match for a multitude of excuses. Surrounded by millions of beautiful wintry acres, I’ll choose to hunker down and wait for a late April thaw. Want to hike up Lafayette? I’d love to but this crock-pot chili won’t cook itself. Let’s lace up the skates and join a pond hockey team! I would except for this documentary on motor oil I really should watch. How about a few runs at Gunstock or snow tubing at Loon? Sounds fun but someone must tend to the indoor herb garden — parsley matters.
"If I wanted to be cold and miserable, I could soak my feet in the kitchen sink and sleep in the back yard."
The idea of winter camping has always perplexed me. Bundle up, pack a few days’ rations into a sack, sharpen an ice axe, walk for hours and sleep in a nylon hut while sub-zero winds howl and moan at your frigid body? If I wanted to be cold and miserable, I reason that I could always soak my feet in the kitchen sink and sleep in the back yard, a few stale crackers in my pocket.
But I’m through thinking this way. This new year is different. It’s time to consider New Year’s resolutions in a different shade. I now resolve to stop saying “No” and start saying “Yes!” to things in my life. I’ll say “Yes!” to the order of tilapia with a side of quinoa, “Of course!” to automatic savings deductions and long-term financial planning and I offer a resounding, “Let’s Go!” to anyone with an extra pair of snowshoes, cross-country skis or an open spot on a local luge team. I’ll up the ante and seek out snowmobilers, ice carvers and ice fishermen. All this New Year’s negativity has brought me nothing but unmet goals, an expanded waistline, empty pockets and an unhealthy skepticism of the great blustery outdoors.
It’s time for a change.
I look forward to saying yes to winter, filling my free time with activity, fresh air and new experiences. I’ll be ready for that crock-pot chili because I’ll spend the day downhill skiing or scoring the winning goal in an overtime hockey game, and no one will catch me binge watching TV when there are trails to ride and snow forts to build. New Year’s resolutions are about turning things around, and what better way than to start with a weekend of winter camping.
Now if I can just find a second pair of wool socks, I’ll be ready to go.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Helping Hands

When was the last time you were hungry? I don’t mean standing in line for Sunday Brunch at the local diner and wow doesn’t that short stack of pancakes look amazing kind of hungry.  I’m talking about a distracting ache inside your stomach, a constant dull pain making you lightheaded, and an anxiety that spins inside, leaving you cranky, weak and miserable. 
                Right now I’m not thinking about eating because I’m too busy brushing the powdered potatoes off my shirt and wrestling with a carton of juice boxes that won’t close, wondering whether the crease on that can of corn is bad enough for me to toss it in the garbage pile.  I’m at the New Hampshire Food Bank near Manchester in the Salvage Sorting Room with a dozen volunteers combing through pallets of food.  I’ve joined the morning ritual, examining hundreds of pounds of boxes of reclaimed goods from local supermarkets, making sure what we have is good enough to pass onto the tens of thousands of our neighbors who aren’t sure where their next meal is coming from.

                The numbers are sobering.  There are close to 1.4 million residents in New Hampshire, and it’s estimated that one in nine suffers from food insecurity – not starvation like you’d see on the news from war-torn refugee camps – but very real and very much right next door.  Defined as a household which at some point in the year had limited or uncertain access to food, food insecurity is a huge problem both in New Hampshire and across the country.  Some suggest there are over 48 million Americans who suffer from food insecurity.  For a society that’ll drive 500 miles for a McRib and then build a website about it, we certainly get things backwards sometimes.

                The New Hampshire Food Bank was founded in 1984, and now in its thirtieth year, it’s never been busier.  “We delivered 8.5 million pounds of food last year and we’re on track to deliver about 10.5 million this year,” Bruce Wilson, the Bank’s Director of Operations tells me.  Nancy Mellitt, my host for the day and the Director of Development, chimes in, “That’s about 8.4 million meals, and we think there are another 24 million meals we could be serving if we had the resources.” That’s a lot of hungry Granite staters.

                This isn’t a corner food pantry with tidy rows of canned beans and a quaint pyramid of feed sacks – the Food Bank is a sophisticated distribution hub and cavernous warehouse that collects and distributes food to over 400 local agencies across the state. As its slogan attests, “We Feed the Programs That Feed the State.” Half of all the food and goods the soup kitchens, shelters, pantries and outreach programs distribute comes through these doors.  Forklifts move pallets of food as eighteen-wheelers drop off reclaimed supermarket goods, cars and vans arrive to pick up the day’s orders while quality control employees inspect items before they leave the warehouse while administrators process the dozens of online orders that come in weekly.

                Nancy introduces me to Erin D’Loughy, the Bank’s Volunteer Coordinator, who puts me to work in the Salvage Sorting Room with twelve or so determined and focused volunteers.  The room’s filled with rows of steel-topped tables where the donated food’s inspected, sorted and weighed, and I join the sorting line.  I learn quickly that no one’s here to chat.  Box after box of assorted items – everything from flour to sauces to stuffing to paper towels, Pop Tarts, coffee, cereal, cold medicine, pasta and beef stew – fly down the rollers for inspection.  Long-time volunteers Bo and David give me a quick tutorial, the prevailing advice being, “If in doubt, throw it out.”  We grab the boxes, check cans for dents, confirm expiration dates, see if we can save ripped bags of flour (we can’t) and set aside anything that can be taped or reasonably repackaged.  As an aside, would the owner of the Capri Sun Corporation of America please get in touch with the Quaker Oatmeal people and confer on making better boxes?  There isn’t a single box of those items that remains intact as we sort.

                We toss about fifteen percent of what comes down the line, and Mel Gosselin, the Food Bank’s Executive Director, who’s arrived to ensure I’m not making a mess of things, tells me, “Everything we throw out gets picked up by pig farmers in the area.  That saves us money.”  During a break, she explains that eighty five percent of everything in the warehouse handles has been donated.  “We’re not a state agency and we’re not a federal agency – we don’t get any funding from the government to run this place.”  It’s easy to see that this entire effort – from the long-time volunteers to the steady whirr and beeping of forklifts and trucks to the lean, talented staff that runs the center – is about New Hampshire taking care of itself.  “And I wonder all the time if we’re failing or are we doing what we can with what we have,” Mel says as the sorting restarts.

                With the salvage sorting done, I meet Paul Barker, the Warehouse Manager, who sets me up with Mike Salinas.  Cordial, meticulous and a wizard of the forklift, Mike says, “Let’s fill this order.”  Paul reminds me I can’t drive the forklift, an excellent idea as I have visions of smashed jars of barbeque sauce and kidney beans covering the warehouse floor.  Mike zips the forklift across the concrete while I pick the items – this order’s for the Claremont Soup Kitchen, and I stack cartons of condiments, coffee, jelly, juice, freeze-dried fish and a dozen other items.  As we head into the deep freezer, Mike insists I wear a loaner coat.   “It’s a lot colder than you think,” he says as I search for a few cases of Hot Pockets and apple pies, and he’s right.  It’s minus 1 in here, the cold clearing out any of the exhaustion in my legs or head.  Mike moves the pallets into a staging area for tomorrow’s pickup, color codes and labels the items, and he’s off to pick another order. 
                Before the day ends, Nancy takes me upstairs to meet Chef Jayson McCarter.  In addition to being a vital cog in the state’s machinery to fight hunger, the Food Bank runs a culinary job training program teaching underemployed or unemployed adults how to prep, cook, clean and manage themselves in a commercial kitchen.  “We train fifteen students for eight weeks – for free,” Jayson tells me as enormous pile of cauliflower is wheeled towards a steam-jacketed kettle, more than I’ll ever eat in my lifetime.  It will be part of some of the 3,000 meals Chef Jayson, his assistant Chef Paul Morrison and these busy students will prepare for distribution across the state. In addition to the thousands of pounds of fresh produce, frozen meat and groceries given away every day, the Food Bank prides itself on filling kids’ bellies with hot, healthy meals prepared by dedicated pros.

                The Food Bank doesn’t waste time with the politics of hunger – not once did Nancy, Bruce, Mike or anyone else suggest why someone was hungry.  Politicians and pundits on both sides of the circus tent we call government today point fingers, confident they know the root causes of this growing food insecurity or blame the recipients for somehow cheating the rest of us out of something.  Meanwhile, thousands of our neighbors want to fill their stomachs so they can pay better attention in school or at work or sleep at night without the worry of where breakfast’s coming from.  Hungry doesn’t care about politics or opinions - hungry wants to go away forever.  The New Hampshire Food Bank’s doing something about it every single day.  Food insecurity for one family is a tragedy – food insecurity for tens of thousands of families is an embarrassment, and every day this place tries to eliminate that shame we should all feel while getting food to those who need it most.

Check out the New Hampshire Food Bank at where you can learn about its programs, make a donation or volunteer your time.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Democracy in Action

Feeling a little cynical these days?  Frustrated with your fellow citizens for choosing that bozo or reelecting such a nincompoop?  In the surge towards this year’s election, I’d been swimming in a sea of cynicism, drenched by negative ads and images that made me wonder if America’s Biggest Idiot was running against the World’s Greatest Liar in every race across the country.   Every two years I note the Facebook posts, watch the ads and read in the papers how my candidate is awesome while yours is not only terrible but also a fool and probably a cheater too.  And it feels like it’s always been this way.  In 1800, Thomas Jefferson accused John Adams of being a hermaphrodite while Adams labeled Jefferson an atheist, which in those days was like referring to someone as the cloven-hoofed Fallen Angel himself.  (“You’ve got man parts and lady parts!”  “Well, you’re the Devil!”  “Let’s be famous Americans!”)  Go figure.

Lately it’s felt like politics and elections are like a big bag of Doritos, promising things they can’t deliver (“real cheezy flavor!”) and ruining my health (disodium guanylate, anyone?).  The initial interaction is great – even inspiring.  That first chip is always a glorious moment when I think this is a new way of snacking – that all the Doritos in the past were nothing like this one special chip, the one I chose from this bag.  But midway through, that familiar, pedestrian taste returns, my belly feels uneasy, and I won’t dare put the bag down for fear that everyone’ll know I made a bad choice.  And of course, if these Doritos were from Connecticut or Louisiana, they’d go to jail for corruption and influence peddling, but that’s a story for another day.

I’ve found a way out of this cycle of self-inflicted misery.  I volunteered to help on Election Day in my local ward, convincing the Moderator, Dennis Thivierge, to let me join the ten or so elected officials and volunteers in Ward 7 for this year’s election.  Dennis invited me to be a Ballot Inspector, to sit at the front table as part of a two-person team checking in voters against the registration rolls, and I accepted immediately.

I arrive at 6 AM, an hour before the polls open, and the place is in full swing.  Sample ballots to post, tables to arrange, pencils to sharpen, rules to explain and re-explain, voter rolls to prep, machines to power on and ballots to stack.  Dennis swears me in with an oath that I may, “Under God, uphold the Constitution of the state of New Hampshire and of the United States.”  This feels kind of cool, like I’m part of something that matters.
A line’s forming outside as we race to get everything ready.  Dennis and Jim Fowler, Ward 7’s Election Clerk, show me the Accu-Vote, a laptop-type scanner that accepts the ballots and counts them as they fall into a huge locked bin beneath.  Dennis reminds us about the need to see a photo ID and what we can and can’t ask for.  As the clock strikes 7 AM, he announces in a loud voice, “The polls at Ward 7 are now officially open for business.”  And from that moment on, save for an odd ten minutes here and there, the line of voters doesn’t stop for twelve straight hours, voter after voter standing in line, waiting for his or her turn to have a say in our democracy.  The tone is friendly but official – John Hattan, Ward 7’s Supervisor of Clerks, reminds me I need to repeat each voter’s name aloud twice while also stating the address.  I follow a strict protocol about what pencils to use, how to mark someone’s name as registered and where to send them if they don’t have an ID or choose not to share one.  Every few minutes or so John or his colleague Margaret Gegas interrupts to add a new Ward 7 voter to the rolls – in red pencil only.

I’m paired with Jemi Broussard, a veteran of this ballot inspecting game, and I follow her lead.  Hour after hour, voter after voter, Jemi and I greet neighbors, strangers, friends and family members, asking them for IDs, confirming addresses and handing them ballots as they breeze past us to the curtained booths.   Jemi chats with people she knows while voters in line connect with each other, little kids goof around under and between their parents’ legs, and people catch up on each other’s lives.  “Did you hear Liz is getting married this summer?”  “Kevin’s at Fort Hood so he won’t be voting today!” “Still teaching piano lessons?”  “Where’d you get your firewood this year?”  A few voters roll their eyes at the request for photo ID, and one irate gentleman slams his license down on the table in disgust.  Moments later a woman waits for me to ask for her ID and proudly produces it, saying, “I’m happy to do it!  I think it’s a great idea.”

A parade of people comes to vote – teachers, tutors, cops, doctors, lawyers, and politicians waiting to choose their own names, presumably.  We see moms and dads, grandparents and grandkids, heavyset voters, skinny voters, voters with pierced ears, noses and lips, voters in their teens, 80’s and 90’s, voters who can’t see, can’t hear and can’t walk, followed by sweaty voters who stop mid-training run to cast their opinions – even voters who talk so much that we politely ask them to take their ballots and move along.  I see my wife’s brother-in-law, the local rabbi, the woman who walks her tiny dog past my house, my son’s Little League coach, and the guy who makes the best egg and cheese sandwich in town.  I see men and women who’ve served in the wars we’ve fought since 1940, including one man in a USS Midway cap who’s been voting here since 1961, his daughter helping him to the voting booth.  Every time a young adult casts a ballot, Jim shouts out, “We have a first time voter!” and invariably the entire place erupts in applause, smiles creasing everyone’s faces.  I even see and shake the hand of the son of one of the soldiers who raised the American flag on Iwo Jima.  What a way to spend a day!
The polls close at 7 PM as Dennis closes and locks the door, and we take a few hours or so checking our rolls and providing counts of party affiliation as Dennis and Jim run and re-run the Accu-Vote machine for the final Ward 7 tally.  At the back table, the others pour over the write-in ballots.  Although David Bowie, Megatron and Santa Claus seem like reasonable write-in choices for County Sheriff, such suggestions are neither practical nor particularly helpful.

On the short drive home it hits me – this is what makes democracy so special.  Not the wasted money on negative ads, not the tedious speeches filled with hollow hopes, not the vitriol, or the winner-take-all attitude.  Our democracy is about community, about taking one day out of the year to spend a few minutes with our neighbors to choose something, whether it’s hope, or the promise of a better tomorrow or a distant future, or out of fear, faith, speculation or security.  I spent fifteen hours surrounded by engaged people who suspended their cynicism for a little while and contributed to the democratic process.  So the least I can do is hold on to this optimism for a while.  I may never think of Doritos the same way again.