Friday, January 29, 2010

The Ballad of Me and John, part 2

November, 2007

John Edwards is coming to my house, this week. I am beginning to think I am in over my head. My new strategy is to go around saying “It’s going to be great!”. Very loud.

On Friday I make over a hundred calls from the campaign office, inviting even more people to the house party. My neighbors have all been leafleted, my teachers and coworkers emailed, my friends Facebook messaged.
“Can you draw me a diagram of your house?” Emily says, putting a piece of copy paper and a marker in front of me. “Security needs to know where the exits are,”
My geometry is lacking, but I do the best I can. I realize it’s upside down and backwards, scribble it out, start over. I hand over a crooked floor plan in smudgy purple magic marker. Emily looks at me like I’m not in possession of quite all my marbles.

Sunday is D-day. Edwards is due at seven, the campaign arrives at four. Kristen is so overdressed she might as well be wearing a sign that says Not From Around Here. Emily hands me a roll of Edwards 2008 stickers and positions me by the door. Everyone is to be wearing a sticker when Edwards finally gets here. Ann, the New Hampshire coordinator, arrives-- cropped silver hair, funky jewelry, South American wool tote bag. She has an armload of placards which she begins industriously affixing to every vertical surface in the house. My mother is gamely brewing gallons of coffee, and my neighbors start arriving with trays of desserts.

Ian motions me into the hallway. He’s already sweated through the underarms of his unironed button-down.
“What are you going to say?”
“What do you mean, what am I going to say?” I’ve been cleaning all week. I’ve been smiling and sticker-ing for an hour already. I’m wearing heels and a skirt in November. I’ve done my part.
“When you get up to introduce John--” they are all on first name basis with the candidate-- “What are you going to say?”
I make a face like I’m tasting vodka when I expected root beer.
“I didn’t know I needed to say anything...” My voice pitches up an octave.
“Oh, man,” Ian says for the hundreth time today. A tiny spasm roils his eyebrow and he claps a hand to his face. “Well, you have a little time--it’s only a few words.”
“Okay,” I say weakly.
“Super.” says Ian, and vanishes.
My mother, coming through the front door with an economy pack of styrofoam cups in her arms, watches him go.
“Is he all right?” she asks.
I give her a dark look and say nothing. I think I need a cigarette.

I scrawl two drafts of my introduction on the polka-dot notepaper we keep stuck to the fridge for grocery lists. I keep it short, aware that I have to memorize it. Good enough, I decide at last, folding the sheet and putting it in my pocket. I run over and over it in my head as I fold napkins into triangles and fill the sugar bowls and creamers. David and my father are busy hoisting two very elderly nuns through our front door. Channel 9 is setting up in the kitchen.
“I was NOT TOLD that there would be TV presence here,” Kristen says, popping a pill and chasing it with black coffee. “Are you credentialed?”
The cameraman looks unconcerned, shrugs. Of course we’re not set up to hand out press passes. That is the end of that.

It is literally impossible to move anywhere in the entire first floor of my house but somehow Emily finds me, my parents and my siblings.
“Come on outside now,” she says, shoving her way through the crowd. “They just pulled in.”
We are coatless, and it’s bitter cold out. Dark, too. The rental minivan idling in our driveway shows no sign of life.
“Typical,” my father says sourly.
Paul,” my mother says, a one-word reproach.
“Do you want my jacket?” Sarah, a higher-up from the regional office, chirrups for the third time.
“I’m fine,” says my sister, for the third time.
Finally, Edwards gets out of the car and heads up the front walk. His much-discussed hair is, sure enough, perfectly coiffed, and like his expensive shoes at odds with his jeans and blue work shirt. It’s all an act, of course, but we don’t expect otherwise. He shakes hands with all of us, as well as a good number of people who couldn’t fit inside and have been waiting under the window. My mother’s friend Roberta shakes his hand and offers him a brownie, which he politely declines. He shakes my hand, follows me into the house. A microphone is thrust into my hand and somehow I’m standing at the front of my living room, in front of a crowd that Emily estimates at 160.
“Hi, everybody,” I stammer.
“Louder, sweetie,” says a tweedy old man behind me.
“Hi, everybody,” I say, copying Kristen’s perky demeanor to the letter.
“I want to thank you all so much for being here tonight, and thank the amazing campaign staff, my wonderful parents who opened their home for this, and especially Senator John Edwards for taking the time to talk with us tonight. In the age of 24 hour news and instant updates, when it must be pretty tempting to just campaign via satellite, Senator Edwards is here in my living room, taking our questions and shaking our hands. So don’t hold back, ask the tough questions--this is what it’s all about.”
Crowd goes wild. I shake hands with Edwards again, hand off the microphone. I imagine first-time heroin users feel similar.
Edwards does his bit. I remember why I like this guy-- his healthcare plan, his plan for Iraq, his stance on poverty. He takes questions--my aunt, a middle school principal, asks about education. My social studies teachers asks about Iraq. One of my sister’s classmates is making a documentary, and asks why the New Hampshire primary is important.
“Because you do this,” Edwards gushes. “You get informed, you care. And because your opinion is so informed it’s a great way for the rest of the country to size up the candidates. Also, New Hampshirites are down to earth people who don’t shy away from the hard questions and who don’t get fooled by celebrity or empty promises-- and I can’t think of any better place for the first in the nation primary.”
We eat this up, of course. Of course he has to say this, and of course he says much the same thing in Iowa. I don’t care. (Edwards kindly doesn’t mention that our first-in-the-nation status is pretty much all we’ve got going for us.) I know I’m being suckered, but my heart swells a little just the same. I let it happen. Cynicism is one thing, having a presidential candidate—a celebrity, really—in your living room is quite another. The few people who have been sitting leap to their feet, and there is universal and deafening approval. Everyone likes to hear that they’re special.
On that note, Edwards ducks out, stopping on the stairwell to pose with my rosy ten-month old cousin Lilly.
The house empties fast now, the line of cars that extended up the street dwindles. I answer reporters’ questions in a daze, and they vanish just as quickly. It is nearly eleven by the time we are cleaned up, and the campaign staffers sent home with foil packets of brownies and finger sandwiches. I know I won’t be able to sleep for hours yet; the buzz hasn’t worn off. The next morning I will sleep through physics and most of orchestra, but I don’t care.
I head to bed anyway, and I lie awake for at least an hour. Despite myself, I’m maybe getting just a touch of TB. I find myself imagining an Edwards win in the primary, then the general election. I’d be able to watch him giving the State of the Union address and tell people that he was once standing in my living room. And the idea is too seductive to resist.

(To be Continued)

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Getting Up Off the Couch

“It’s really hard to be roommates with someone if your suitcases are much nicer than theirs.”

-J.D Salinger

I won’t say I’m going to exactly miss J.D. Salinger, since he hadn’t published anything in my lifetime, but his books, especially Franny and Zooey and Nine Stories, are some that truly changed my life, both as a writer and as a human alive in the world. So I felt like I should write something.

Franny Glass is still the character I identify with most in fiction. (I hope for my sake that this will change eventually, and I won’t always identify with a over-sensitive, over-wrought college girl having a nervous breakdown on the couch.) She’s self-serious, spiritual, frustrated about everything, and she doesn’t know what to do about any of it. She can’t quite wrap her head around the fact that maybe everyone has an inner life as rich as hers, and she feels as though she feels, sees and senses the world more acutely than other people. I pray to God I’m not like her, but I relate to Franny Glass the way some middle-aged women relate to Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoirs, or some teenage girls relate to Bella from Twilight. These books are successes because they make us sit up say “Yes! This is exactly how I feel!”.

So maybe I'm going to miss old J.D. after all.

My other, more eloquent tribute to J.D. Salinger in TNH:

Saturday, January 23, 2010

In the Loop

My younger brother told me this week that when he has dreams about our whole family, I’m no longer in the dream. I’m choosing not to consult Freud on this one and hoping this is only because I don’t live at home anymore, but it still stings. Coming home from college and being surrounded by family again is a scary thing. I used to see these people every single day, be completely privy to their comings and goings, to say nothing of bowel movements and menstrual cycles. College, however, has taken me completely out of the loop. And if this isn’t my loop anymore, where is my loop?

My sister is suddenly driving, my brother is graduating high school, my younger brother is heading to middle school and my dad can’t keep up with me on skis anymore—and it’s all happening without me around. Somehow their milestones make me feel older than my own. Seeing a girl whose diapers I changed get behind the wheel of a car (my car) packs way more punch than my own birthday. Worse, it’s all happening without me. Half the time nobody even bothers to tell me these things. It took them three days to tell me that my dog died, for Christ’s sake.

I realized today that I don’t even remember what I got on the SATs. That might not seem like a big deal, but I was one of those kids--there was a period of about three months where that number seemed like everything. You can’t imagine that you’re ever going to forget that number, because you write it on college applications and tell it to guidance counselors and more grudgingly to the nosy girls with nice straight hair and Tory Burch flats. These girls have middle-tier brand-name business college written all over them. You, with your Wilco T-shirt and viola case and haircut that makes you look like Barbara Streisand in The Way We Were, are rather obviously destined for the liberal arts.

You’re going to go off to that liberal arts program and promptly forget about those girls. You’ve got down-to-earth people here. People who get you. There are people who read books here, and even boys who don’t think you’re a freak for reading books. Even kind of like you for it. These are people who care about what is going on the world, and want to write and talk and sing about it. You find your tribe.

You keep an ear and an eye to your old tribe, but one day you realize that this where you really belong. The old loop is still going on and changing and shifting without you. You can make guest appearances, but you’ll never quite slip back into your old place. Deep down, your allegiances can stay the same, but there’s no dual citizenship allowed.

It’s all as it should be, of course. It’s a story as old as time itself. We go out and take on things we never thought we could, find ourselves a new tribe, build ourselves a new loop. We forget numbers that used to mean everything.

The Ballad of Me and John, part 1

The story of me and John Edwards begins in October, 2007

The Edwards campaign office in Derry, New Hampshire is in a shabby brick store front, its windows plastered with Edwards signs and handwritten banners. Once, this building housed the cobbler my father went to, back when Derry had industry other than tattoo parlors and Al’s Rod and Gun. I am not sure the shop has been cleaned since my four-year-old self was knocking over displays of shoe horns and helping myself to lollipops from the basket on the counter, but no matter. I’m here to work the phones, as I have been for several weeks now. It’s dull work--this is 2007, people are hardly ever home to answer my calls. There are only three types of people who I talk to:

Retired People, either lonely and wanting to tell me about their grandchildren and their health problems, or deeply, spectacularly cranky.

The Harried Young Mother. There are kids in the background, making menacing noises. The Harried Young Mother mournfully informs me that she used to be interested in politics but it’s just so hard to care anymore, and besides dinner’s on the stove so thanksforthecallbutnothanksbye.

The Angry Man: Age and politics vary, but every Angry Man is sickened, just sickened, by the state of Washington, and thinks that all politicians are crooks anyway, so screw it. If he’s planning to vote it’s probably for Ron Paul.

I don’t care much for working the phones.

But all of this dialing and waiting and listening to answering machines leaves plenty of time to watch life in the office go by. The four paid employees are a rangy, sleepless, chain-smoking bunch, with acid senses of humor and a creeping suspicion that this life is all their expensive Poli Sci degrees are good for. The other campaign volunteers and I agree that they are all sleeping with each other.

Ian and Emily stand on the sidewalk outside, bickering in whispers. They’re both a little heavy, the result of too many meals from the Seven-Eleven next door to the apartment they all share. Ian has the look of someone who sleeps in his clothes, and is always badly in need of a shave. Emily favors peasant skirts and DIY haircuts.

“Uh oh, lover’s quarrel,” David says snidely, looking up, his ergonomic phone braced between his neck and shoulder. He’s from California and says things like “I’m so jazzed,” “right on,” and “dynamite” without irony. He also refers to Route 93 as “The Ninety-Three”. We think this is a riot and haven’t bothered to disabuse him of it.

Kristen shoots him a meaningful look. Pert and blonde, with the slightest hint of a Virginia drawl, she drinks Red Bull like water and is inextricable from her Blackberry. David returns the glance over the clementine he is peeling. He’s just quit smoking and citrus is his coping mechanism. Outside, Ian sucks his cigarette down to the filter and tosses it into the street. David gazes after it the way someone with a stapled stomach regards a dessert cart. I mark down another undecided voter on my tally sheet, dial another number, keep my eyes down.

If you want any cred with campaign people, the first thing you have to do is read Primary Colors, the anonymous roman a clef about a fictionalized Clinton campaign. I don’t know if the phrase true-believerism originated with that book and all its devotees have adopted it, or if it existed before and the book simply popularized it. Either way, it’s a book that fairly successfully quells TB: the story of a man who does anything to get elected, and then just when you think karma’s coming for him, just when it doesn’t seem he can keep up the act anymore...he wins. The end.

But whatever its origins, it’s an easily identified malady. Even to my untested eyes, it’s obvious who has it and who doesn’t. Ian has caught TB, so has Emily. David and Kristen are resisting so far. And me? Well, I want to believe. I want to believe in this, because I love this urgent, dynamic environment, I love to think that the work I do could change the future of the country. I believe in Edwards when I’m reading his plan for Iraq or the economy. I believe in John Edwards when I’m on the phone, explaining his healthcare plan to undecided voters. But I watch him on TV, on Meet the Press or in the Democratic debates, and there’s just no spark. My feet stay firmly on the ground, my eyes decidedly dry.

Campaign people are almost a species unto themselves. They gnaw their fingernails until they bleed, chew the ends of their ponytails, take up coffee or cigarettes or smuggled Canadian Ritalin. They develop a disregard for personal hygiene, start having angsty campaign sex with near-strangers, begin to forget what it’s like to eat a meal with real silverware. There is no down time, no respite from the grinding work. Full time staffers put in fifteen hour days, seven days a week. But admitting stress is admitting weakness, and this twitchy, unhealthy mania called campaign life is a blood sport. People try to trump each other, swapping stories about how they spent four days before the Florida primary subsisting on nothing but black coffee and Lifesavers, or how once they didn’t sleep in a real bed for three weeks. It’s poisonous, it’s absurd, it’s sheer, unadulterated madness. And I’m hooked.

I'm a New Hampshirite born and bred, and since before I could walk I've been meeting and greeting the slew of politicians who descend on my state every four years. (There’s a video of me, forever entered into family lore, in which I’m violently bouncing up and down on a rocking horse. “Who are you voting for?” my dad asks. “Paul Tsongas!” I cackle. “And why do people live in New Hampshire?” he says. “NO TAXES!” I scream gleefully.) But having met all these people, there's one thing I've come to grips with. Politicians are not honest people. They are not morally superior people, or infallible people. They're not especially nice people, though they all have the same folksy, glad-handing act down pat. Come to it, I can't stand politicians. But, brought up in a political state with political parents (who have some of the most impressive bullshit detectors I’ve ever seen) I never really caught TB.

I am the only local in the office when Ian realizes his blunder. He smacks his forehead, leans violently over his particle board desk.

“Ellen,” he hisses, so as not to interrupt the many phone calls going on in the office. “Can you have a house party, on November 9th?”

“What? No--”

“It’s easy, we take care of everything. You won’t have to worry about anything.”

This is a grotesque understatement. Somehow, though, Ian talks me into it. This kid is going to go far in politics.

(To be continued)

I'm Officially a Fish With a Bicycle

I’m a college student. I’m also a feminist, and not shy about the label. I’m also in what is pretty much my first adult relationship. (the kind where you don’t end the evening making out in a Civic while your parents watch from the upstairs window.) I was grossly under-prepared me for what a minefield this is, and for what it means. Because what it means—having a relationship that isn’t about “parking” (yes, where I’m from we still go parking) and making out in front of your locker and “you hang up first, no, you hang up first”—is that I’m really fucking old.

First of all, most college students don’t really have relationships anymore. I’ve done the booty-call thing and the random hookup thing and the you-have-a-girlfriend-why-are-you-touching-my-boobs thing, but in my two years of college I haven’t tackled the relationship thing. I like having fun, and I really like being independent. A boyfriend never really fit into my life, or anyway I couldn’t imagine how one would. Then, when I was busy living my life, working hard, playing hard, doing my thing…a guy who fit came along. Just like that. I live in a Cameron Diaz movie. It’s fine.

But after those few weeks of off-the-radar 24/7 coupledom were over, it was time to tackle some tough stuff. I still wanted to go out with my girlfriends. I still wanted to slob around my dorm with pore-refining mud on my face while eating cookie dough. (There’s a place on campus that sells individual cups of cookie dough, spoon included. There is no way to eat that alluringly, I’m sorry.) Plus, I’m a writer. I need time to think. I need time to be down in the dumps, because I just get like that sometimes. It’s usually followed by the most bearable writing I’ve done in months. So where do you draw the line? How do you say, I love you, but please leave me alone? Where is the instruction manual for this rig?

Those questions we’ve handled, so far. We’re getting the time management stuff down. But what about when I’m at a party without him? This is college—everybody is all up on everybody. There’s a lot of sweat and Keystone and other fluids all over everything, and there’s just generally a lot of mingling of fluids. It’s fucking disgusting, I won’t lie, but what are you going to do? Now, obviously I’m not letting anyone near my fluids. But what if I’m dancing with someone else? Or if I kiss my best friend in exchange for a six-pack? Nobody tells you. Not health class, not your mom, not your human sexuality class, not Cosmopolitan (otherwise known as “Twenty-seven ‘Sexy’ Things to Do With a Scrunchie”).

Answer: We have to talk. We’re a couple now, and we have to straighten this out. Almost like…grown-ups. Damn.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Take Your Plaid Shirt and Get Out

The other day I saw a trailer for Drew Barrymore's first directorial effort, "Whip It". (Yeah, I realize the movie's been out for awhile already...I live in the sticks, we're not cultured here. ) The movie stars Ellen Page as an aspiring roller-derby queen with parents who don't understand, no cred with the popular kids, and no game with the opposite sex. Sounds like pretty much every mediocre teenage coming of age picture, besides the oh-so-indie addition of roller derby. But there's a line in the trailer that almost sums up the annoying thing about the entire hipster/alternative/indie "movement". Ellen Page is waiting tables (because in teen movies only losers are employed) and is serving a table full of big man and woman on campus types, one of whom looks at her and says derisively, "What are you, alternative now?" Ellen Page, looking all twee and bewildered, asks "Alternative to what?"

Perhaps it shouldn't bother me-- theoretically, more people join this army in H&M, the more people who are going to find their way to great alternative music, right? If you pick up a copy of Nylon for the fashion articles, you're going to stumble across profiles of The Dead Weather and The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, alongside a review of "It Might Get Loud" and an interview with Kim Gordon. Nothing wrong with that. But if you're listening to that music because Nylon tells you to--and not because you like it-- I hate to tell you,'re doing it wrong.

I hated "Garden State". I think Grizzly Bear is grossly overrated. Pabst Blue Ribbon is fucking disgusting. Zooey Deschanel is starting to annoy the hell out of me. Leggings are not pants. And that headband makes you look like Pocahontas. And I'm tired of all you Urban Outfitters-clad drones taking my music, damnit.

I have a theory that I'm currently testing. It's secretly really easy to get Pitchfork excited about your band. All you need to do is:
1. Lose (at least) twenty pounds. Just get
as skinny as possible.
2. Move to Brooklyn.
3. Choose a color, an animal and a location. That's your band name.

Thing is, every hipster from Williamsburg to Washington is already wearing buffalo plaid and Ray Bans and ironic cartoon T-shirts. And when everybody's doing it, it's alternative to...what?

Now, arguably there's nothing more obnoxiously hipster-ish than hating on obnoxious hispters but please, for the sake of two of my favorite things in the world--music and fashion--get a dictionary and look up the words "Independent" and "Alternative". Start actually living independently. Dress in a way that makes you feel good and look good. Listen to the music that you like. Watch the movies you enjoy. Drink beer that actually tastes good. Own yourself. Create your own trend. The world would be a far more interesting place if we weren't all trying so damn hard to be the same.

See, she has blue hair so you know she's different. Get it?

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Resolutions, I Guess

So it’s January, which means I was supposed to make some resolutions about three weeks ago. I pretty much never make New Year’s resolutions, because I’m a realist. Also, like Neko Case, I believe I’m an animal, and you’re an animal too. It’s the winter. I live in New England. All I want to do is make myself a nice little layer of blubber, curl up somewhere warm, and stay there. I do not want to be lean, or mean, or a fat-burning machine. I want a season of Mad Men on DVD, a slab of apple pie the size of my torso and one of those peppermint monstrosities from Starbucks. Because really, who am I to fight Mother Nature?

But there is a force greater than Mother Nature in this world, and Her name is Oprah. Oprah and her pet gurus all encourage you to visualize what you want for yourself in life, and to make a board with pictures, articles, quotes etc. that are going to help you reach that goal. Now, I’m not really sure what my goals are. But in honor of the new (ish) year, here’s a start to my board of Oprah voodoo—five people I want to be more like in the coming year.

Tina Fey & Amy Poehler: Funny, awesome, successful, down-to-earth and just cool. I wish I could come up with something better than a string of adjectives for these two, but I can’t. They’re that awesome. And yes I know they're not the same person, but I couldn't have one without the other.

Alice Munro: I just read her most recent collection of short stories…it gave me nightmares and made me actually delete several dozen pages of my own writing in a fit of despair. It was fantastic.

Rachel Maddow: Because she basically says what I think a hundred times more eloquently and bad-assedly than I can, and directly to the people I wish I could say it to. I’d like her whole vocabulary, and even half her ballsiness.

Lady Gaga: Yeah, she’s crazy, but she does whatever the fuck she wants.

Gabourey Sidibe: I haven’t yet gotten a chance to see “Precious”, but now I want to, if only because of its star, newcomer Gabourey Sidibe. Left and right she has been tackling interviews and the beginning of award season with grace, humor, and a total refusal to buy into the “movie star” thing. She’s just doing her own thing, and seems happy doing it.

Excuse Me While I Go Cry Myself to Sleep

Well, once again, the Democratic party, of which I am ostensibly a member, is driving me to drink. (Labatt Blue, specifically. Not a coincidence.) The Dems managed to dredge up a candidate who could lose to a pretty-boy whose incendiary platform consisted mainly of "I have a truck."
They're saying this is a referendum on the DNC and President Obama--and it is, to an extent, but it's also simply a reflection of how sorry the political process has become. Nobody even wants these thankless jobs, and so we wind up with the most vapid and least charismatic characters possible running for public office. Scott Brown, with his campaign based mainly on his "regular guy"-ness and the perfectly mediocre performance of his daughter on a television reality show, would never have won if he were pitted against an actual politician.

This was a seat that historically belonged to the Kennedys. While I don't reserve any more fondness for the Kennedys than I do for the British royal family, they knew how to run a campaign. Have you seen Ted Kennedy's "The dream will never die" speech in a while? Or the one at the Democratic National Convention, given less than a year before he died of a brain tumor? How about any of Bobby Kennedy's speech where he quoted Aeschylus? (Ask Sarah Palin who Aeschylus is. Just ask her.) They might be have been entitled, boozing, whoring assholes, but fuck could those well-coiffed bastards run a campaign.

But now there's no Kennedys left, at least not any viable or eligible to run for Teddy's seat. So effectively, here's what happened:

Scott Brown: "I have a barn jacket. I'll lower your taxes. My family is attractive. This is my truck." (Paraphrase.)
Martha Coakley: "You want me to stand outside Fenway Park? In the cold? Shaking hands?" (Actual quote.)

Considering how much was riding on this, it might have been nice if the Dems showed up to play. And if Martha Coakley hadn't quoted goddamn Herman's Hermits in her concession speech.