Posted tagged ‘volunteering’

election day 2020 – recap

November 4, 2020

I survived my day of volunteering at the polling station for my precinct yesterday. It was actually not at all as “bad” as I feared.

My day started early. I was up and showered and dressed and eating my breakfast by 3:45 a.m., going over one last time the training materials I had for my job, which was actually several jobs throughout the day. The polling station where I worked was only a few blocks from my house, in a Baptist church where I had voted several times before. When I arrived, a few other volunteers were walking in as well, so the official day began.

We had a lot of set-up work to do, not only opening the voting machines, but setting up tables and working out how we would snake the long lines of voters through the space. We were set up in the church’s cavernous gym, and there was a long front lobby that reached around the gym where we would direct the voters. Had the weather been bad (it was gorgeous for a November day in Kansas), we could accommodate several hundred voters inside as they waited, even with prudent social distancing. We set out signage. We checked our equipment. We were sworn in (with right hands raised). We were given a pep talk. We signed up for two-hour shifts in varying rolls. We geared up for a long and busy day.

My first role was as a greeter just inside the lobby. I was to direct the voters down the long lobby to where they would turn to enter the gym. I was also to ask any maskless voters if they would like the free one from the box I had. (Two did, embarrassed that they had forgotten them, and I’m told we had only one voter the entire day who refused to wear a mask.) When we opened the doors at 6:00 a.m., we had a line of about two dozen people waiting to get in. I did my thing and the voters disappeared around the far corner of the lobby. After that voters occasionally trickled in, and I directed them, but I noticed that no voters were emerging from the other end of the gym. (They would enter/exit the church by the main doors, having made a circle while inside.) As the minutes passed, I wondered what was going on in the gym and if the voters were piling up. (I would be working there later.) But then the first voter emerged, thanked me for volunteering, said how easy it was to vote, and left. My guess is that there were a few kinks to be worked out in the process, and by the time I was working in there, they were.

I worked my greeter shift for two hours. Voters came in steadily, though there were never any lines or throngs. I imagine these were the folks voting before going to work, though there were some young parents with babies and toddlers too. I chatted a bit with the other greeter. (I was inside the lobby. She was at the door to hold it open for voters.) The time passed and eventually someone came to replace me when the shift changed. My next duty was at the polling station.

Here I was in the gym, sitting before a tablet and checking in voters. Best of all, I was sitting. This work involved examining the voter’s photo ID (in nearly all cases it was a driver’s license, though there was a passport or two, which was legit ID). I had to visually confirm that the person was who they claimed to be, then find that person in the rolls via the tablet. This was a smooth process for the most part. Most people had up-to-date records and current addresses. Once or twice I was stymied and had to call one of the seasoned volunteers to help me. One man, a citizen though not originally from the U.S., had a three-word name I could not find in the rolls. I tried a couple of variations before I asked for help. It turned out that I had taken the wrong word as his last name; he was found on the voting list, received a ballot, and was ushered to a voting machine to exercise his right.

I spent two hours at this station, and for the most part it was easy work. There were a number of first-time voters, often with their beaming, proud parents behind them, and a few times with professional photographers documenting their experience. One of our (unofficial) duties was to call out first-time voters so that all of the volunteers could clap and cheer for them. Several older voters crept in with walkers or canes, and chairs were quickly produced to allow them to sit while we checked them in. We also had two voting stations where they could sit for as long as they needed to complete their ballots.

My next shift was at the final step of the voting process, where the voters feeds the completed ballot into the ugly black machine to actually cast the vote. Since voters could elect to use a machine station (which would produce a paper document reflecting their choices) or mark their choices on a paper ballot the old-fashioned way, I had to be at that ugly machine to make sure they fed it into the correct slot. This was tricky since I had to make sure they fed it right, but I also had to make sure I wasn’t reading their ballot right in front of me. (The printing on the machine ballot was too small for my eyes anyway, but I was diligent about stepping back or turning away as soon as I could regardless.) A few times the ballots were rejected, and I had to call over a seasoned volunteer. Often this was because there were stray marks on the paper ballot or because someone accidentally voted for two candidates in one election. These were corrected with fresh ballots, and the votes were cast.

The best part about working at the ugly machine was that I got to hand out the I Voted stickers, which are a big hit. (Voters also got pens this year. These pens had a conventional ball point in one end and and a rubber stylus for tapping the choices on the voting machines at the other end. Fewer fingers touching the screens meant less possibility of transmitting viruses.)

Somewhere along in there I had a lunch break, and the rest of the day I floated to whatever role needed filling. Mostly I worked as an escort, taking a voter who was just checked in to the voting machine and explaining how it operated. I also worked at the check-in station again, handing out ballots and pens. The day passed, and while the minutes sometimes seemed long, the hours didn’t. We kept expecting the rush to come — during lunch time, in the late afternoon once people left work, in the evening after dinner — but it never did. We were mostly steady with voters coming in, but we never again had lines, and the most people had to wait was a few minutes.

When the day ended at 7:00 p.m. one of us was going to have to go to the end of the line of waiting voters to turn away anyone who arrived after that. I dreaded being assigned that duty, but at 7:00, there was no line. One man came in at about 6:55 and was swiftly processed, but that was it.

After the doors closed, we volunteers had about a half hour of tear-down work to do, and then we were free to stagger home to watch the news.

I had feared that we would have a tense day with angry voters and possibly even intimidation and incidents. None of that happened. The only “offensive” clothing seen that day was on a man who wore an Oakland Raiders face mask, which the Kansas City Chiefs fans among the volunteers assured me was a taunt. We had no irate voters who had to be pacified. There were several voters who came in only to learn they were at the wrong precinct, and we were able to direct them to their proper polling station. No one complained about this minor inconvenience. The voting machines all worked. The power didn’t go out. The weather was ideal. It was about as perfect a process as one could hope for in such an otherwise raucous election.

And what impressed me most of all was how non-partisan the day was. Of course, it was a national election, so voters didn’t identify their party, but I don’t think that would have made a difference. I got to know several of the volunteers that day, and it was evident to me how they leaned politically, yet throughout the day I saw every single voter treated with respect and encouragement. The outcome of the election was never discussed among the volunteers during the day. All that mattered was helping the voters cast their ballots successfully. Young voter, old voter, every race and creed, broken English, poorly dressed, babies or toddlers in tow. Everyone got the election experience they deserved. It was moving to witness this.

I’m glad I volunteered to work this election, but I don’t think I’ll do it again. Except I’ve been told there is a local election coming up next August and that I will be approached to volunteer for it. I expect I will.

election day 2020

November 3, 2020

It is now 3:43 a.m. I am up, showered, dressed, and eating my breakfast. I’ll pack my lunch soon and then drive the few blocks to a neighborhood church where I will work at the polls until the voting day is done.

We are a civilized, purple county in a red state, so I don’t expect any incidents of intimidation or vandalism, though I won’t be surprised if patience is worn-thin among those standing in line to vote (if the forecasts are correct for turnout).

I’ve never done this work before. Perhaps I’ll have stories to tell.

Anatomy of a story ~ “The Respite Room”

December 5, 2011

I probably shouldn’t do this, but I want to write about the genesis and development of my short story “The Respite Room” since it has been on my mind recently. (The story will come out next month in the Little Patuxent Review, about which I am inordinately vain. The editor asked me to tinker with the last line, so I’ve been revisiting the writing of the whole piece since everything leads to that last line, of course.)

As you probably know from reading this humble blog, I am wary of knowing too much about my creative process. I fear that a consciousness of it may somehow slay its natural flow, the way I think some people’s slavish devotion to “writing rules” and “grammar rules” slay their own creativity (but that’s a different lament).

This story came from my experience for the last ten years volunteering in a respite room at a local hospital. The respite room is a place for the family members to get away from their patient’s room — the beeping monitors and sucking respirators, the unrelenting grimness — and take a break, have a sandwich, make some calls, watch some television, or just sit and relax.

Over the years, I have seen a lot of people pass through the room; I’ve seen the extremes of humanity because often their souls are laid bare. As I say in the story, these people are going through the worst moments of their lives, and I’m present as a mute witness. (I did not begin this volunteer work as a means to generate story material. If I had, it would have been a poor decision since it’s resulted in only a single story, one that I have struggled with for nearly as many years as I’ve been volunteering. But my personal motivation does flicker into my character’s motivation a bit, which I think gives him credibility.)

Conversely, I’ve seen a lot of volunteers who have helped run this respite room through the years. It’s tempting to believe that I’ve seen these people at the best moments of their lives, but I don’t think this is always true. I think that there is a predatory type of personality who is attracted to this kind of work. There are many types of personalities who do this work, of course, but I’m interested in the superior, arrogant person, the one who sees helping the unfortunate as a way to “straighten out their lives.” Who see managing such resources as requiring control and judiciousness. Who see the needy as “grasping” and “greedy” and the victims of their own poor choices who are lucky to get any help at all and ought to show more appreciation for it dammit! I’m not altogether fair in this portrayal, of course. I’m stressing this attitude a bit (but not very much, in my observation) in order to make it easier for me to understand and work with. And this kind of “predatory charity” is manifested in many other avenues of life in our complex society, which I think makes my story more universal while remaining specific. But I think I’m straying from my point in this post.

Anyway, this combination of seeing people at their worst and seeing others at their “not-best” has kept me reflective for a long time, and trying to write a story to crystalize my thoughts is the natural outcome, at least for me. And thus “The Respite Room.” (By the way, my original title was merely “Respite Room.” Somewhere along the way it picked up that definite article. I don’t know when that happened, but I don’t suppose I mind.)

I started writing the story as a first person reflection by a volunteer in such a room, mostly as an account of a typical day. My original goal was to suggest that the human interactions in the respite room were a microcosm of our overall society, and to that end I had intended slipping in all sorts of characters who would represent various groups who provide service in our communities: police, janitors, trash collectors, ministers.  That effort turned out to be more of a vignette than a true story, and I soon had to evolve it. I took it into third person narration so I could discuss my protagonist’s thoughts more objectively, and I found that all of the service-sector characters I had intended were drawing away from the point of the story (which was growing more clear to me as I struggled), so I dropped most of them, keeping only the police representative in the form of a hospital security guard. His presence does instigate a plot point; otherwise I might have dropped him too.

And I found I was lacking a clear representation of that “predatory charity” personality, so I added a new character. She makes an appearance at the end, though I reference her early in the story, and I think that fix is what made the difference and finally allowed me to see the real story I wanted to tell. It allowed me to pull together the fragments I had. I often get these kinds of epiphanies in my writing; they’re not necessarily some revelation a character receives but rather ones I receive about how to develop the story. When this happens, a story I’ve struggled with for years suddenly seems to flow through my fingers onto the keyboard in final form. (This recently happened with the story “Velvet Elvis” — which should appear this month in Bartleby Snopes — I had been casting about for a plot for the basic idea behind it for many years too.) The trouble with relying on this writing-through-epiphany process is that it can sometimes take years for it to happen, which tends to limit productivity.

But now I have “The Respite Room” finished and accepted. I’m enjoying all of the warm fuzzies that come with that and chiding myself for not working on more stories. But I think I needed to get through my analysis of this story, which has been on my mind as I said earlier, so I could be free to work on those other stories. Will the stories now flow? I will watch and see.

A few stray thoughts:

I had written about my struggles with this story as long ago as this post back in January of 2009. In that I discussed the placement of a single word. Curiously, in the final story I’ve chosen the wording that I had rejected in that blog post. Also curious is how my intention in the wording has been taken from me and completely subverted by current events. Back then, I wanted to suggest that my hospital security guard character was a benign, almost comical person and certainly one with no menace. (It makes sense in the story.) I speak of his menace as being seen in nothing more than the canister of pepper spray he has on his belt. The point was to suggest that he was not menacing at all. Recent events with the use of pepper spray in the Occupy movement turned that completely around. I don’t think it hurts the story, but it does add another bit of meaning to it I hadn’t intended.

I use sentence fragments throughout the story. I have no reluctance with flagrantly breaking the so-called “rules” of grammar. As you know if you’ve read my rants in this humble blog, I think creative writers get a pass on grammar if they are able to get their meaning across in some rule-breaking way. (I recently saw the adverb “hectoringly” used in My Antonia. I’m sure the writing mavens would have catalepsy over that — adverbs are bad, don’t you know. Willa Cather didn’t seem to get that memo.)

I alternate plot-furthering paragraphs in the story with backstory paragraphs. I hadn’t realized I was doing that until a recent read through. I’ve been told before that I’m pretty good with seamless flashbacks. I’ll take that on faith; I just write what I write. But I was a little surprised to see how I was telling two stories. As I’ve said before, half the tale is in the telling. It seems to work.

Some of my liberal politics do creep in. They’re in keeping with my protagonist’s ethics, and it think they give counterpoint to the antagonist’s attitude. But I’ve done it so subtly that I think you would have to go looking for my bleeding heart in the story to find it. The lack of universal health care? The lack of a national service model? The fact that every aspect of our community is tied to every other aspect? It’s in there, and sometimes a paper cut is more than a paper cut.

This is one of my “serious” stories. I do seem to write in dichotomies. My stories have either been serious, “literary” works or they’ve been snarky, comical works. (“Velvet Elvis” is one of the latter.) I can’t account for this — maybe I don’t want to know why — but it may be that I need the release of a comical story after all of the wrenching effort of writing a serious story. Or I write the serious story to persuade myself that I’m not just writing stuff to make people laugh. Whatever. I write what I write.

Somewhere along the road I also “realized” that my protagonist is married to one of the minor characters in that novel I’ve been struggling with: Larger than Life. His wife does not make an appearance in the short story — I’m not even sure he’s married yet in the setting of the story. And he is only mentioned by name in the novel-in-progress — though by then they have two children. Faulkner did this a lot in his stories and novels. (Nota bene: I’m not claiming I’m in league with Faulkner!) Characters who are the subject of whole novels are given tangential references in other of his novels. Often, this illuminates both works in unexpected ways. I don’t think this brilliance is happening in my humble scribbling. Nor was this relationship between these two characters my original intention with either work. I just sort of realized it one day. I suppose that strengthens my understanding of these two characters, making it easier to write about them and find their places in their respective stories.

As I said above, my intent on taking this perilous journey into my creative process was to give myself some closure on this story that has occupied my heart and mind for nearly a decade. I’m pleased with it, but I’m eager to move on as well. Catharsis achieved, I think.

Little Patuxent Review is a print-only publication. I won’t be able to give you a link to find the story online. After a suitable time, I’ll post the text of it here on the odd chance that you might care to read it.