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.

The Blush of First Love: One Note at a Time

When my friend, Bill wrote about his daughter’s first crush, he wrote of the “pang of yearning” for her experience. As is often the case, I somewhat missed the point in my comment, thinking only of the impending demise of young love. When Mark wrote about his brief acquaintance with someone who became a success, I commented that it might be better not to meet the people behind their work.

I am, so often, a rather cynical person who is likely to see that the half-full/half-empty glass is in need of a good washing. And who the hell left it there for me to clean up, anyway?

canstockphoto7136037Sometimes, though, I am reminded of a first love I cannot deny. I smile until my face hurts. Chills run up my spine. Tears well up. I can’t sit still. Want to see a grown woman turn into an ungainly, starstruck teenager? Set me down at a live music performance. To paraphrase Gloria Estefan, for likely the first and last time ever, the rhythm is gonna get me.

I’m fortunate to live in the Twin Cities, a metro area that sprouts organic bands overnight. Tuesday night’s show, with the band i like you and local orchestra kids, was a charity performance to buy used and new musical instruments for kids who can’t afford them. That idea alone brings me to tears. I can’t imagine my life without being able to make my own music and I wouldn’t want any child to miss that opportunity.

Lessons started for me in 4th grade on a nickel-plated rental flute. We were poor, so this was a great luxury and one of the gifts for which my mother will always have my gratitude. The consequence of that monthly rental fee was that I had to practice, without fail, for 30 minutes every day. I resented it about 50% of the time, but the other 50% was all about making my own music.canstockphoto25554786

I played all through high school, never particularly gifted or talented, but practiced, always the practiced musician. I worked at a local cafe and did beanwalking in the summers (it’s an Iowa thing) to pay for my own brand new silver flute. It will likely last my lifetime. In the Army, I took that flute to every posting. While stationed in Monterey at the Defense Language Institute, I joined the Russian balalaika orchestra, donning a traditional sarafan and playing the flute while ungainly military men danced folk dances and sang about bears.

While in college, I took lessons from someone more talented than I and turned around to teach lessons to small troglodytes whose parents wanted enhanced babysitting services. I did have a handful of students over the years who will, even if they no longer play flute, know how to read music and what the word embouchure means. This word is also the answer to the questions “what will get you beat up on a playground?” and “what will make your friends think you’re a pretentious douche?”

I married a programmer who was a drummer and keyboard player by night with a couple of bands. Most of our first year of dating involved concerts and bar bands, our first date a concert that included the Cowboy Junkies, Duncan Sheik, and John Hyatt. I discovered some of my favorite musicians at the Cedar Cultural Center, have gone to festivals and band battles. Over the last few years, we’ve traveled up to the Winnipeg Folk Festival. There’s nothing like acoustic musicians and singers under a clear Canadian night sky.

I play the flute and a little piano. My daughter plays viola and piano. My husband plays guitar, piano and drums. There is music in our house all of the time. If we were more talented on average (the kid is pretty awesome, but the adults could use some work), we’d have to buy matching outfits and a van.

The Kid and the Less Talented Old People doesn't really roll off the tongue as a band name.
The Kid and the Less Talented Old People doesn’t really roll off the tongue as a band name.

Music sinks deep down into my skin. It plays in my head constantly. I sing terribly every day, in the car and the shower, and awkward dancing is how my housework gets done. The only time I never play music is when I’m writing, because to me that is like trying to eat pie and cake at the same time. Each is enough on its own. Although sequentially, still quite delicious.

During the concert’s intermission, I took my daughter and one of her besties, a fellow violist, to meet the band. I gushed, I blushed, I stammered. The kids looked slightly mortified. There is something so magical about mere humans creating such beauty, that I am, to put it lightly, in awe of them. I don’t want to hang out with them. I don’t want to be them. I just want to thank them. I want them to know that what they do matters.

We’re living in a time when everything is processed, packaged and delivered to our devices. Live music is one of those things, like a mildewy paperback in a secondhand store, which reminds me that love is all about discovery. It’s a momentary kinship in time, when we connect with beauty and it feels like it was created just for us.

Fertile Ground

canstockphoto15476528It’s gardening time. Be prepared for wheelbarrows of garden metaphors, analogies and similes to seed this blog for the next couple of months. With a side of compost.

The claustrophobia of winter has begun to dissipate. It’s too early to plant seeds outside in Minnesota, but the strawberries are poking through and the buds on the lilac bushes have begun to form. I got hit smack dab in the face by a meaty bug, likely disoriented and newly emerged from the thawing ground. While trimming raspberry canes and Concord grape vines, I stopped frequently, standing motionless, a stupid grin on my face, dirt on my knees and an overwhelming sense of relief.

Something happened to my brain during the sixth month of a moody winter. I haven’t been writing much, as each session culminates in a screw it and me storming off to do housework. I am almost through one of James Joyce’s works, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. It’s taken me weeks to work through. Last night I took a break and looked up definitions of the many words that I could not garner from context. I’m pretty sure I’ll be brain-dumping arras, cerements, and woodbegirt, but am excited to keep inanition: the absence or loss of social, moral, or intellectual vitality or vigor. It’s the perfect word to describe my affliction in March.

This morning, on what will be the first of many trips to Home Depot, I hauled bags of dirt. It all starts with the dirt. It’s nothing special. There’s lots of dead stuff in it. It’s messy and just lays there, waiting, ready. But a blank patch of dirt to a gardener is an opportunity and perhaps, a compulsion. Your brain registers the conditions: wet or dry, sunny or shady, clay or sandy. It runs through the catalog of seed packets. What works? What doesn’t? Should it be an experiment? Or something that gets changed every year?

canstockphoto22961553It’s not too far a stretch to make this analogy work for just about anything. Writers often talk about that blank page as if it were something special. It’s just dirt. What we put into it is what makes the difference. So, this barren landscape, devoid of creativity, of ideas and of imagination is the place to start. Some ideas will never take hold, some will briefly raise their heads only to be wilted by a midday sun. Others, though, will put you on the path to meaning, substance and beauty.

canstockphoto5109847Beauty is such a subjective word. For all the reading and writing I did this winter, each round a pale imitation of the last, I was seeking beauty. Knowledge, depth, understanding – these are the aspects of beauty that resonate with me. But beauty in gardening is not just the end result. If that were all that gardening, and writing, were about, then I’d just buy flowers at the market or read other people’s books. It is in the labor of the thing. It is one’s part as a creator, one’s tangling with point of view and weeds. It is rough hands and raw thoughts. It is dirt under the fingernails and raging frustration of translating your story onto paper.

It’s wonderful – that dirt and that blank page. A garden or a story just waiting to be created.

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A Mind of One’s Own, Minimal Square Footage Required

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I’ve been riding along the last couple of weeks as if someone else were at the wheel. I stare out the window as the landscape speeds by, lost in thought, lost in ideas, but not really lost at all. It’s the kind of drifting that loosens the nerves, unclenches the fists, allows the mind to be frivolous or deep, shifting from moment to moment.

Books are in stacks about the study. I’ve meandered from one to the next, from Virginia Woolf’s loosely compiled speeches in A Room of One’s Own to Tim O’Brien’s exhausting Tomcat in Love (it’s hard work wanting to like a book and being quite unable to). Frigid temperatures kept me pacing relentlessly, doing housework, muttering to myself and occasionally putting on 45 layers to venture outdoors, until I fog-freeze my glasses and stumble back inside.

This is what it always is – the malaise of being at the halfway point of a six month Minnesota winter. Seed catalogs have started arriving. My blog reader piles up as relentlessly as the gardening chore list. I cannot keep up. It would require that I shove my fuzzy, drifting thoughts back into a box and bring a level of focus and commitment to the moment.

My mind drifts to friends, on and offline. I think of Ruth, fighting to manage and beat back her cancer and of Sandy, pondering the idea of home. I think of Kiri fending off anxiety each time she looks for a home to buy and of Bill, unraveling after years of employment. And there’s Amy and Jen, dealing with the challenge of jobs that shift and change from day-to-day. I think of my grandmother, whose faithful canine companion went to sleep on Monday and never woke up. I think of my husband, who just moved offices for the zillionth time, new cube, new building, same relentless job. And of my daughter who is home with the flu. Again.

They’re all in my constant peripheral vision. But at this moment, life stands still. I pretend I’m isolated and that John Donne was wrong. I’m an island – staying quiet, introspective, self-reliant. I’m composting, letting thoughts and ideas sink in until something meaningful emerges and I have the energy and optimism to share again. With about 15 minutes of decent sunshine, humidifiers sputtering and tons of mental manure to shovel through, it takes longer for something worthwhile to grow.

canstockphoto22778900Overhearing my husband, on the phone with a cousin talking about family history, prompts me to Google my relatives. I read news clippings about the murder of my maternal grandfather, a man I met once in 1974. He gave me molasses cookies from Alaska and a 1950s children’s book about an agreement between the Alaskan Eskimos and the Laplanders called Reindeer Trail. It takes me a few more family name searches to remember I’ve done it all before, this grasping for roots, for connection. They’re all stories to me, not memories.

It’s an aimless sort of thrashing about, trying to shake off stagnation, to raise a hint of a ghost of a whisper of motivation. Phhhtt. Writing becomes an aimless exercise in creating things that I edit until I hate them. I begin to mock writing advice in my head, ending each conversation with an erudite just shut it!

I forccanstockphoto12183645ed the study window open, slivers of ice falling from around the frame. The sun gives the illusion of warmth, but the air is sharp. I can hear cardinals singing, sighting a flit of brilliant red before the glass fogs over. I stand a moment longer, breathing icy air, before closing the window and sealing myself in again.

A little music for the rambling mind:

Doorstep Politics: Sometimes It’s Not About the Party

canstockphoto5811625We’re heading into another midterm election. I just spent 20 minutes on my doorstep talking to the Republican candidate for state representation of our district. While I am registered Independent, I tend to vote heavily Democrat. There was a time when I would mutter that oft-used phrase “fiscally conservative, socially liberal”, but now so many distinctions must be made between social issues I think government should get the hell out of and social issues that impact fiduciary decision-making that it’s no longer sufficiently vague to head off unwanted debate at the pass.

It hit me about 5 minutes into this conversation, how hungry I was for real political engagement. This candidate was a character – animated, humorous – he hadn’t been in the system long enough to turn into a rote zombie boot licking two-faced power suck (seriously, TV, stop doing shows about these assholes). He was earnest, but sufficiently vague for me to think maybe I’ll vote for a Republican. It’s happened before – and not always by mistake.

This candidate reminded me of a first grade teacher I once knew. Quirky, slightly awkward, but always, always willing to talk. We’re so used to the drab, polished demeanor of our national politicians. We get a variety here – they’re complete knuckleheads who say bizarre and reprehensible things (I’m from the state of Michelle Bachmann and Jesse Ventura) or they’re vague and incoherent as if pixie dust will fix the state budget but more commonly, they’re the party’s Stepford candidate  – when a slight breeze can blow over their cardboard cutout selves.

I could imagine this guy, years down the road, when our mummy representative finally collapses into a pile of non-pixie dust (the dude has been in office for 4 decades, can I get a term limit hallelujah, please?). The new guy will probably get his teeth fixed. He’ll become more somber. He’ll look less like an uncle you see during the summers at the cabin and more like an undertaker. He’ll be a smooth talker, because he will have said the same thing over and over and it’s what the party leader, who took him under his decrepit wing, said he should say.

He’ll automatically try to reach out and shake your hand when you’re just trying to get to the bathroom. He’ll mistake your purse dog for a baby and kiss it. Whenever he talks to you, you’ll see his eyes darting desperately to the side in search of a teleprompter. His daughter will get knocked up. His son will come out with a documentary on how to be a gay Republican. It will receive a tepid greeting at Sundance. He’ll hire a black Muslim lesbian for his spokesperson to make up for the glaring white heteronormativity of his unwieldy staff (and yes, I meant that to sound dirty).

But today, he’s just this guy who thinks he can make a difference. He laughs and talks amiably. He believes that his country, his state, his town are worth representing. He believes in his ability to be a good representative. I don’t care what party he is in – it reminds me of where politics really should begin. With some hopeful schmuck or schmuckette who believes in stuff. The problem is where it ends up and all the shuffling and unethical compromise in the middle. Did I mention term limits? Term limits, term limits, term limits. Ah, I feel better now.

It took me a couple of decades to get into the habit of midterm voting and I had planned to go this time, mostly for some school referendums. After talking with this candidate, I was reminded of how much I care about participating in this process. No matter what our party affiliations, this man, who I had never met before, who I likely have little in common with, reminded me that we share hope. And we could certainly use some of that right about now.

The Long, Long Winter of Our Discontent

canstockphoto1508295Mornings seem grim these days. The sun may be shining brightly, but many of us are buckling down in our ice-encrusted houses waiting out this unending winter.

I woke up worn out by a dream that played over and over again. I witness a car accident. The car is on its side, in flames. I’m standing in a crowd and see a man trying to climb out through the car window. People all around me pull out their cellphones to dial 911. I rush forward, trying to pull the man up and out of the burning car. I drag him to safety while talking myself through a fireman’s carry.

People are still talking on their cell phones. They may have been taking pictures. I’m tired, coughing from all the smoke and I notice there is a second person in the car. I start begging people to help me. I do not think I can save this person on my own. No one helps. I awaken, frustrated, desperate and depressed.

For the umpteenth morning in a row, it’s below zero with a windchill factor in the negative double digits. We are supposed to get more snow today, which really means nothing. The frozen tundra of our urban landscape, melt-off frozen into sheets of ice on the roads, means the ice will be more slippery, if that’s even possible. We’ll go through the motions – ice skating lessons, workouts at the Y, grocery shopping. I’ll notice, with a dull glumness that we’ve tracked more salt in across the rugs that I’ve cleaned for the millionth time.

The washer is broken. We apparently purchased a washer running on alien technology, since no one had the $20 parts we needed to make the fix. They are coming from the UK and no longer cost $20. Piles of snow outside, piles of laundry inside. I try to rally, picking away at small projects, trying to at least keep the rest of the household caught up. I’m a third day in the same jeans.

I have seed catalogs, but even they fail to brighten my spirits. I know that long before the planting, there will be weeks of tree trimming, soil amendment, fence re-staining. They’ll be different chores than the winter tasks and will seem better for being outdoors, but it’s hard to imagine now.  As much as I try to enjoy the winter landscape with ice skating and cross country skiing, I know I am a visitor in the hostile lands of the White Witch, who would rather freeze me where I stand than allow me to luxuriate in the beauty.

I’ve often said that I like living in the upper midwest. I like definitive seasons. We used to make jokes about snow birds who fled to Florida and Arizona. I understand them now, even in middle age. The joints move more gently, the skin doesn’t dry out and crack, the spirits don’t flag starting in early February from the long brittle days and the nights when the furnace can barely keep up with the plummeting temperatures.

The brain is going wobbly, leaping from one morose thought to another. My husband turns 50 this year and it hits me that even if he’s lucky enough to live long, he’ll die in the next 50. That I am three years younger has padded me mentally against having the same thought for myself. My thoughts continue along this path and I snort at my nearly comedic desolation.

canstockphoto0278524With a sigh, I pull myself up out of the reading chair, lift the window shade and see the drifting of large snowflakes to the ground. The furnace grunts and kicks on, seeming as fed up with winter as the rest of us. Thank goodness that winter is much like the pain of childbirth – forgotten once life begins. Spring will wipe the slate clean, our relief more like gratitude than a simple change of season.