An Introvert Walks into a Caucus…

In the United States, a precinct caucus is the smallest unit of politics one can participate in – it’s the beginning of the beginning.

Last night, the Republican and Democrat caucuses took place in little class and canstockphoto50751416conference rooms all over the state of Minnesota. I have always considered myself an independent and in the distant past, voted for whatever candidate I felt would be best. These days, moderate Republicans are like unicorns and independent parties keep putting up fringe operators at best, so last night I went blue and attended my local precinct caucus for the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party (Democrats in Minnesota).

In a fit of pique after the 2016 election, I had joined the nonpartisan League of Women Voters (LWV). They focus on voting rights and community issues, which appealed to my sense of egalitarianism (wasted in the current environment, but old habits die hard). I was dipping my toes into the pool of activism. I’d always been politically informed, a nerd who read The Economist and Foreign Affairs, but joining a march or going door-to-door made me shrink away in horror. And meetings give me a shiver of revulsion.

Current events being what they are and simply being pissed off enough to overcome my personal inclinations, I typed up the voting rights resolutions (items you put forward to be added to the party platform) supported by the LWV and packed myself off to the precinct caucus.

canstockphoto26667276The last time I attended any caucus was about 20+ years ago, while I was attending the University of Iowa. I was working three jobs and trying to get through college. I’d gotten out of the Army with some vestiges of Republicanism, but had given up religion and was turned off by the conservative morality police, so I attended a Democratic caucus down the street from my apartment. Like most of college, I have little recollection of the proceedings.

As an introvert, I have to prepare myself for events. I’m usually filled with nervous anxiety, don’t sleep well the night before, and find myself issuing mental commands: Breathe. Relax your shoulders. And then the reassurances: It’s only two hours. It will be fine. In the case of this precinct caucus, it wasn’t just a case of showing up and listening. I had to speak as well.

My suburb has 14,000 registered voters divided into eight precincts. Statewide, Minnesota has a slight majority of Democrats over Republicans, so statistically, my precinct caucus should represent around 800 Democrats. 15 people showed up. Low-level participation during a midterm year is common to both parties. A woman told me in 2016 that you could barely move through the hallways, it was so packed.

canstockphoto10803271The 15 people ranged from 30-80 in age, all of us having the blotchy pale color of a six-month Minnesota winter. We were ensconced in puffy clothes that made us all blobbish, wearing shoes with traces of road salt on them. This is the red carpet of an involved citizenry. Due to the small number, we were all automatically delegates to the next meeting. Yay?

We followed the rules of order and an agenda, while being interrupted by politicians popping in to give their mini stump speeches. They all seemed a little breathless, as if they were attempting to go to every one of Minnesota’s 4,117 voting precincts.

The first major bit of business was doing a straw poll for gubernatorial candidates, since ours is on the ballot in the fall. I was one of two uncommitted voters in the room. It’s early in the process for me to determine who I’d support. And I simply hadn’t done the research.

canstockphoto39668856When it came to resolutions, I had five. There were only two others from the rest of the room. One was from an elderly gentleman who shook slightly as he spoke – he wanted a moratorium on factory farms. I knew that there were lobbies in our surrounding states to do the same, due to the health issues and the pollution of waterways. His resolution passed.

I went through three voting rights resolutions: automatic registration with the driver’s license (an opt out system rather than the current opt in), pre-registration for 16 and 17-year-old voters (raises early voter participation), early voting using actual ballots and not absentee ballots (saves money and less confusing to voter). Then two government accountability resolutions: no more omnibus bills in the state senate and house, must follow single subject line rule (with the exception of major finance bills which have a lot of moving parts) and transparency in electioneering communications (currently if ads don’t say “Vote for” or “Defeat” in Minnesota, advertisers don’t have to identify themselves).

All my resolutions passed unanimously. A slight victory, since these resolutions will have to go through many more filters before having a shot at making it into the state’s party platform, much less any actual legislation in the very far future.

The last resolution was done on the fly by a man hastily filling in the form. He was talking about school referendums and I didn’t understand what exactly his resolution was, despite asking for clarification. Since I did not have the opportunity to do any research, I abstained from the vote. It, whatever it was, still passed. Easy crowd.

canstockphoto48358399I walked into the caucus with apprehension, but I walked out as the precinct chair, a delegate, and an election judge. I am reminded of a magnet on the fridge that a friend gave me: Stop me before I volunteer again. I am an introvert, but I’m also tired of the loudmouths having all the power. Our system suffers when the extroverts and impulsive blabbers dominate.

It was a big question among my introvert friends last year. How can I make a difference without being loud? I remember a sign that showed up at marches: “So bad, even introverts are here.” The world has become so hostile and angry that people like me want to retract our limbs into our shells. But now is simply not the time. Better to counter the impulsiveness of shameless self-promoters. Just breathe, relax your shoulders, and step into the world, resolutions in hand.

We Are All Unreliable Narrators

canstockphoto10603891The last couple week of blogging hiatus were ostensibly for wrapping up edits on the novel. Life happened, as it usually does, which means my work-in-progress is still in progress. Still, good work is being done and I’m pleased with that.

Part of the challenge of writing fictional characters is understanding that what they see and experience might be entirely different from what actually happens or what another character experiences. It becomes about perception. I think about this a lot in my own life – the weird dichotomy of feeling one is right while knowing one can be completely wrong.

I grew up in a family where dysfunction was served for dinner. My siblings and I are not close, in part because we perceived our experiences quite differently and any discussion of the past ends in argument. My brother and I could be talking about the exact same moment in time and have completely opposite memories.

This is cute in movies and sitcoms, but in reality it’s not so adorable. We talk about a barbecue party where he remembers happily drinking sodas (that we didn’t get to have at home) and I remember being worried about where we’d sleep when the drunken revelry turned ugly and the police were called. We become belligerent about our perspectives and conversation turns combative.

canstockphoto6397204Unreliable narratives abound and it doesn’t end with the personal. We’re seeing our country become more dogmatic and polarized. As the rhetoric heats up, there are those among us who cross the line. And each time one of our “sides” does something reprehensible, we dig our heels in a little deeper, cling to our tribes and cement our perspectives.

Our country is not safe, if it ever was. The anger within has been running rampant, encouraged by public vitriol, unchecked by more moderate voices. The rhetoric has become as emotional and volatile as a soap opera. It’s a reality show that doesn’t stop after the filming. We carry it into our homes, our everyday lives, our perception of our own lives, and of others.

There is nothing to be gained by screaming at each other. It only escalates until someone who is already too close to the line crosses over it. Violence begets violence begets violence. And we tell ourselves, I would never do that. I’m a peace-loving liberal or a law-abiding conservative. But we groom our own thoughts. We have our small conversations at the proverbial water cooler. We nod in agreement, give each other some exclusive sign that we get it and “they” don’t.

canstockphoto6433663The old saying used to be that people shouldn’t talk about religion, politics, or money to keep conversations civil. We’re in a day and age when people are talking about everything, yet ethics have not caught up to the lightning speed of social media. Any form of it from news sites, to Facebook, to YouTube has promulgated this culture of “I am right and you are all so stupid.”

One of my favorite teachers is Pema Chödrön, an American Buddhist nun. Sometimes I think she goes a meditation too far. She talks about the aggression in our thoughts and words. I have a pretty violent sense of humor. I’ll joke about dropping someone with a head kick or back fist to the face. Ha ha – right? Just typing it makes me realize that I might need to work on my sense of humor. She might have a point.

canstockphoto5516626Still, violence in words and thoughts goes beyond jokes. How we talk about one another can be very aggressive.  When we label or sort people into groups, this becomes the stepping stone to dehumanizing each other. Once we’ve done that, we’re only a hop and a skip from internment camps and in the case of some individuals, violence.

One of the things I’ve had to learn as a parent is that when in conflict, I have to be careful to confine the rhetoric to the behavior, not the person. When my child carelessly spills something, I might say “that was careless” not “you are careless”. If Hillary Clinton had characterized a set of beliefs or behavior as deplorable, it would not have changed the outcome, but it would have changed the conversation (and quite a few bumper stickers and t-shirts).

There’s another useful tool, often used in relationships. It’s avoiding the use of universal terms. You never take out the garbage. You are always so slow. Republicans are hate-filled. Democrats are freeloaders. Men are thick. Women talk too much. Having children is selfish. Not having children is a curse. We’re all morons. Okay, that last one might have some validity considering the state of things. But those broad brushes serve to isolate and entrench us into untenable positions.

The people who I trust least are the ones who know they are right and will insist on it regardless of any evidence to the contrary. When it comes to national politics and the invisible monetary machinery at work, most of us are ill-equipped to be right. That we argue and squabble about things of which we know little, would be amusing if it didn’t lead to people shooting other people.

canstockphoto12537336When I was a kid, I read a fable about two neighbors fighting. They were having a conversation about the neighbor who lived between them. The first neighbor insisted the middle neighbor’s hat was red and the second insisted it was green, until they came to blows over it. Spoiler alert: it was a two-sided hat. To update this, I’d make it MAGA on one side and The Sierra Club on the other. They could only see it one way from their perspective. Both were right and both were wrong.

I’m not going to draw false equivalencies here. I’m not that fair-minded. But it is a reminder that we only see things from one perspective. Because of this solipsistic fact, we are not the best arbiters of truth. We have to be willing to acknowledge that our opinions, attitudes, and beliefs are hindered by the unreliable narrator within –  that’s the first step out of the antagonistic mess we’re making of our country.

Resources I Return to on a Regular Basis:

Taking the War Out of Our Words: The Art of Powerful Non-Defensive Communication by Sharon Strand Ellison – I randomly flip this book open and instantly find some piece of wisdom that I can practice throughout the day.

Thank You for Arguing: What Aristotle, Lincoln, and Homer Simpson Can Teach Us About the Art of Persuasion by Jay Heinrichs – This book always reminds me that I’m not as smart as I think I am. And I like that.

Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change by Pema Chödrön

Between Parent and Child by Dr. Haim G. GinottThe communication skills in this book are invaluable and not just for parenting.

How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish – Another parenting book that teaches universal communication skills.