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100 Days: An Election Anxiety Memoir

A series exploring the relationship between writing, art and voting in the run-up to the 2020 election. Start at the beginning with Day 100. Or scroll down for the most recent days.

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12 Days: Viaje

In this month of skeletons and zombies and pumpkin spice (link), it felt appropriate to watch Paz Fábrega’s minute Costa Rican romance Viaje from 2015 begin at a costume party. It was this month’s pick for Las Kikas Cine Club.

As Viaje begins, a lonely young man in a bear costume hits on a woman on the stairs at a house party. It’s not clear what her costume is, or if she’s wearing a costume at all. She rejects his advance, but a few minutes later returns and corners the bear in the bathroom. They kiss and leave the party together. A drunken romance begins.

Pedro (Fernando Bolaños) is the bear and Luciana (Kattia González) is the “girl” — spoiler alert — it turns out the young woman’s costume is of herself wearing what she would have worn in kindergarten. Nobody gets it without her explanation, which she finally gives to a stranger at the end of the film. So, is this a tale of goldilocks and the bear? Red riding hood and the wolf?

Leaving the party, the two flirt in the back of a cab. The conversation turns to a rejection of monogamy and the construction of an imagined life together with queer polyamorous couples taking care of their children on the weekends so that they can still go out with other people, or each other. The cab driver interjects, calls this attitude selfish, and suggests that when Luciana has her first child her mothering instincts will kick in.

In the morning, Pedro has to leave for work. He is a graduate student in forest research and needs to travel to a remote forest outpost. He invites Luciana along. She can take a bus back into town after the first leg of the trip. And the journey of the title begins.

Before leaving, Pedro brings a pet fish in a plastic bag to be taken care of by a friend at a local aquarium shop. The fish in a bag was a nice callback to the theme of entrapment embodied by a goldfish in last month’s Las Kikas film pick, Pelo Malo. In the next scene, the two are talking about condoms. Pedro doesn’t like to be wrapped in plastic any more than the fish does. Is this Pedro turning in to an animal? Is Luciana in danger? Is the child predicted in the taxi about to be conceived. Or is this more of the flirtatious sexual exploration that started in the taxi earlier?

Soon the two are in the jungle, brushing their hands over a bed of plants that contract when touched. As the two disrobe in their tent and later at a swimming hole the story risks becoming a tale of Adam and Eve among the wonders of the Garden of Eden. Though it is unclear what the forbidden fruit is, or if there is an impending fall for indulging in this spontaneous journey. Will the two turn into animals? Will real animals come for them?

This is not that kind of story. The viaje is as much an internal one for Luciana as it is geographic. Luciana might want to rewind her life and play the part of a little girl, but we learn that a major change in her life will begin soon. She has a boyfriend on the other side of the globe that she hasn’t seen in a year. She is about to fly away to be with him. Following Pedro deeper into the jungle is not compatible with these plans. Our lovers must live in the moment.

Viaje is shot in a beautiful black and white that brings contrasts forward. The jungles of Costa Rica and the bodies of Pedro and Luciana might have been overwhelmed and lost in lush green if presented in color. The dialogue is sparse. Much is unsaid, revealed only through the movements of actors Bolaños and González.

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13 Days: Luck

When I realized on Tuesday that my next post in the countdown was number 13, I again started thinking about jinxes and luck. 13 is supposed to be an unlucky number. I’m a couple of posts behind because of a busy week with a client. Should I skip post 13 altogether? Older buildings have no floor numbered 13 because the offices or apartments are harder to rent. Is the opposite true, I wonder? Can you charge more for apartment on the lucky 7th floor?

Luck comes in to play when you’re rolling dice, trying to test the odds. FiveThirtyEight published a clickable model of the election this week that pairs their statistical modeling with the satisfaction of putting states firmly in the “end Trump” column to see what a win in one state might suggest in the rest of the country. It’s a step up in complexity from rolling the dice at Trump’s 12 in 100 chance of winning, but it’s still just a roll of the dice. It’s not productive to keep going over the simulation to see how many times Trump hypothetically loses. The thing to do is to work to make the odds better and better for Biden to actually win: sign up for text-banking or phoning voters, or voter protection. Still. I can’t stop looking.

As a walker, I smile when I luck into finding something interesting. But when I’m not walking much, as has been the case lately, I’m not in a position to be lucky. Sometimes I favor routes that are crowded and well-travelled because it’s more likely I’ll run into a friend or learn something about the people I live alongside in D.C. But by walking on busy 14th street, I miss out on learning about nature by walking in Rock Creek Park and miss out on finding free boxes of cast-off goods left in the back alleys by my increasingly wealthy neighbors. I think of the idea that you can put yourself into position to be more likely to find what you’re looking for as serendipity. But is there a difference between serendipity and luck? I suppose you can have bad luck. The most important thing is to be engaged, pay attention, give yourself a chance.

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14 Days: Palace

“I like my songs to be reminders of certain things that I don’t want to forget.”

—Adrianne Lenker

Yesterday, I compared memories to ghosts and described how returning to a physical place often brings out these ghost-memories. Walking the city becomes a way of remembering.

A map of the city can bring out memories too. Two lines cross, representing an intersection. The intersection holds a memory, holds several memories: a first date, a late night, a big game, a dance party, a shouting match, a crime. The eye follows one a line away from the intersection and the mind conjures the quiet of the street outside the noisy bars, the smell of fallen leaves and earth in the cool air under a full moon. The next intersection conjures a holiday party where you talked to a colleague you hadn’t seen in years, now married with two children. And the memory map goes on and on.

The ability to remember a place and what happened there in the past is not unique to humans. It’s useful for any animal to remember where food is, where danger is, where members of the opposite sex know the breeding grounds to be. Humans have exploited this ability in abstract ways since ancient times. The construction of an imagined “memory palace” to walk through with in the mind is a trick used in memorization that is described in writing as early as the 5th Century B.C. by the Greek poet Simonides. It is likely humans used these techniques to remember stories and other important knowledge long before Simonides time.

Stringing together actions and details in a series of sentences is another way of walking through a landscape, re-living a memory. A paragraph or a story is a map in another form. A linear route from beginning to end with landmarks along the way.

I have written some of the personal stories in this series multiple times in the past, in journals and in unpublished fictionalized accounts. Publishing a version of these maps, of these memories here where they are public, is different. Other people can compare it to their own maps, their own memories. You readers can annotate the map and add your own landmarks, or suggest that the map is off, is an unreliable guide. Putting your thoughts in public nails down memory and contributes to public knowledge, to a collective map.

Reading Amanda Petrusich’s profile of singer/songwriter Adrianne Lenker in the New Yorker, I was inspired by the way Lenker works, sometimes recording songs the same day she writes them, in isolated and socially intense settings. Her quote up top, that her songs serve as “reminders of certain things that I don’t want to forget” is as primal and ancient an instinct as writing has.

In the case of a songwriter touring with her band Big Thief, the spontaneously written lines are repeated and sung night after night (or would have been before the pandemic), just like the ancient bards reciting poetry from their memory palace. Is there a more intense way to relive a memory? A more intense way to put your map out there for others to follow?

What if I’d written 100 songs this season instead of 100 meandering entries like this, and what if I sang them for 100 people in 100 cities? How much more direct would each of those maps’ routes be?

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15 Days: Hauntings

On August 11, I received an email from La Colombe announcing, “pumpkin spice draft latte is back!” At the time, I was sweltering in my 90-degree apartment. My air conditioner had been broken for two months. With two fans pointed at me at all times, and a constant refill of ice cubes and cold drinks, and my windows open, all I could think about was staying cool and hydrated (and the beeping trucks and pounding noises at the construction site directly outside those open windows). The beginning of pumpkin spice latte season was a welcome sign. I imagined autumn sweaters and crisp walks under changing leaves. It was comforting to think that even if the repair delays from my landlord, the HVAC contractors and the air conditioning manufacturer continued, temperatures would eventually drop. Perhaps that is how I somehow managed to write a post about the truth found in poetry that day.

I just finished reading Amy Shearn’s Unseen City. We learn early on that the novel is set during pumpkin spice latte season. Our hero Meg is a Brooklyn librarian. She is secretly tempted by PSL, but maintains her steadfast dedication to her black coffee order. I haven’t been to a coffeeshop since February. I have no idea if my favorite baristas are still employed at my favorite café, but I identify with Meg’s desire to maintain the identity she presents to the near-strangers behind the counter by resisting that sweet seasonal temptation.

I have much more than coffee in common with Meg: a bike is her preferred way to get around the city; she geeks out on maps and urban history; takes pride in knowing how her neighborhood came to be; and she is haunted. Unseen City is a ghost story.

I don’t believe in ghosts, but I do believe in hauntings. When I walk streets I know well, stories tied to buildings and houses and shops come alive: memories of past relationships, stories family and friends tell, and scenes from histories and memoirs I’ve read. Most of these stories do not concern dead people, but the moments, feelings, associations are only alive, can only be re-lived through memory. And these memories are strongest when triggered by the physical spaces where they occurred.

Meg is haunted by the ghost of her sister Kate, and for the most part, this haunting is the kind I identify with. Landmarks and mental associations bring Kate to life. Kate comes back to her as well when Meg is alone in her apartment. But the city is changing. The restaurants and shops Kate knew are changing. Meg learns she must move out of the apartment Kate knew. Will the forces of real estate untether Meg and Kate’s connection?

Another ghost is more substantial in Shearn’s narrative. Iris is a nineteenth century Black orphan in Manhattan who is adopted by a family in the free Black enclave of Weeksville. The book takes us back and forth in Brooklyn’s history to show us how the past remains present in the street grid, in buildings, and perhaps in spirits who are just as upset as Meg about having the physical evidence of their lives and memories erased by the forces of urban change.

Meg and Iris’s stories come together when a handsome library patron shows up to search for information about a haunted house his family owns. He is haunted by his own ghosts, as we all are. Sharing these hauntings becomes a way for the two to trust each other.

Unseen City draws parallels between the present and the past, the time of the old ghosts and newer ones. Civil War-era draft riots in which Irish immigrants lynched free Blacks and burned their homes are paralleled by Brooklyn’s racial tensions of the recent past and present-day. New ghosts created to cohabit the city with the ghosts of the past. A 150-year timeline is condensed and layered into a single present-day.

• • •

Wandering and haunting are tied together. Virginia Woolf’s Street Haunting, an essay on her wandering mind as she meanders the streets of London comes to mind:

The sights we see and the sounds we hear now have none of the quality of the past; nor have we any share in the serenity of the person who, six months ago, stood precisely where we stand now. His is the happiness of death; ours the insecurity of life. He has no future; the future is even now invading our peace. It is only when we look at the past and take from it the element of uncertainty that we can enjoy perfect peace.

Virginia Woolf, Street Haunting: A London Adventure

When I visit Minneapolis or Philadelphia, it is tempting to drive or walk past all the places that conjure my favorite ghosts — ghosts of old relationships or of friends I rarely hear from. These are living people I could invite out for coffee (and sometimes do). But neither I, nor they are the person who haunts these places. We’ve changed far more than the buildings and streetscape have, so it makes sense that these physical places conjure the ghosts of memory. Much of my writing over the past few years has been inspired by these kinds of memories bound to geography (this is how I wound up owning the URL ). Chapters from my fiction are now as likely to haunt me at certain street corners as events I’ve lived through.

Even here in D.C., hauntings surround me. I’ve written about some of these in this series. U Street, where I now live and write from, contains ghosts of the joy of Obama’s victory in 2008, parades and music festivals, the 1968 uprising, and more. A bus shelter in Mount Pleasant is haunted by Trump’s win. I had walked late into the night contemplating Trump’s win. A friend’s text as I came to that bus shelter finally broke the spell, “what is going to happen? Is it going to be O.K.” she asked? The next morning, I walked to an art residency north of Georgetown. There were frustratingly few signs in the cityscape that helped make sense of the news. The sky refused to stay gloomy. The city went on. But now, that walking route and the hardware store I stopped at along the way are haunted by Trump’s win. What other hauntings will stay with me from the Trump years? Scott Circle filled with signs from the Women’s March. Boarded-up buildings and slow chanting and singing Black Lives Matter marches on my empty and quarantined street night after night.

What ghosts of memories will I carry from November 3? From the next two weeks? This weekend I made some fresh memories, bicycling and walking and talking of a possible small socially distanced backyard Halloween party. Will that backyard’s Halloween ghosts come to me as ghosts of memory in the future?

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16 Days: Get Some Sleep

Today is a Sunday. On Sundays I’ve been writing shorter posts that offer one simple thing you can do to end Trump. One reason for this is that I like to spend less time on my computer on the weekends. It is a lot easier to write up a quick recommendation about someone else’s tool or resource than to mine my memories for deep insights when I want to be out enjoying the autumn air. These Sunday posts also come from a desire to have some efficacy and impact from this project. From the start, I debated whether it was likely that 100 rambling blog posts would be the thing that finally sinks Trump, would have any impact at all. That isn’t entirely fair. I believe that writing honestly, publishing, and building community builds a better world. It may not be as effective as calling voters in Pennsylvania (which you should totally do), but in the long run, art, expression and community are how the culture changes. In the meantime, I took a good long Sunday nap today. I recommend you do the same, or go to bed early. Don’t be 2012 me, working too much, refreshing political blogs and filling yourself with busy self-destructive anxiety. We have 15 more days. Pace yourself.

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17 Days: Loser

Yesterday, I engaged in some speculation. It felt good to imagine what comes next. It isn’t a certainty that Biden wins. FiveThirtyEight put it in dice-rolling, probability terms, as I did the other day. Trump’s chances are “a little worse than the chances of rolling a 1 on a six-sided die and a little better than the chances that it’s raining in downtown Los Angeles.” The odds of the latter are one in ten. None of that matters if we don’t follow through, show up, vote.

After superstitiously worrying if I’d jinxed everything by writing a version of Trump’s next few months and years, I was surprised to read this morning that Trump had done the same. Late last night, Heather Cox Richardson wrote:

Tonight, at his Georgia rally, Trump outlined all the ways in which he was being unfairly treated, then mused: “Could you imagine if I lose?… I’m not going to feel so good. Maybe I’ll have to leave the country, I don’t know.”

Heather Cox Richardson

Early in Trump’s political rise, I read about the influence of Norman Vincent Peale, author of The Power of Positive Thinking on his life. For a time, Trump was even associated with Peale’s Manhattan church. I have understood many of Trump’s most outrageous statements to come from a twisted adherence positive thinking at all costs. He will only say things out loud that he wants to happen in the world. If he says something inexcusable — “Russians, if you’re listening,” or “one day, like a miracle it will disappear” — I can point to his adherence to positive thinking to rationalize it, to understand how his brain works. The same goes for his stubborn unwillingness to say inconvenient and unflattering facts out loud. He is incapable of letting facts impede positive thinking. It is the inverse of my reluctance to publish yesterday’s speculation.

Peale’s philosophy is dangerous to the degree that its adherents allow faith in positive thinking to get in the way of rational thought and action. It is the same thread of belief that kept my spiritually inclined Grandmother from seeking medical treatment as her health declined in her later years. Eventually, my parents and uncle intervened and persuaded her to see doctors. She had diabetes. With this help, she successfully managed it in her last years.

The fact that Trump uttered the words, “could you imagine if I lose” — putting the image in his followers’ minds, in his own mind — is an uncharacteristic crack in his positive thinking. That he is describing a need to leave the country is even more alarming. What are the circumstances he images will require him to live in exile? It’s a path typically reserved for corrupt authoritarians when their reigns come crashing to an end.

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18 Days: Prognostication

Somehow I’ve gone all day without hearing any sound bites from last night’s dueling town halls. Biden and Trump appeared on separate networks because Trump rejected the perfectly reasonable precaution of a remote debate amid his treatment for Covid-19. I read a few reports about the evening. They tell me Trump was an embarrassment to the country. They tell me he lied. They tell me he refused to disavow the conspiracy that inspired a gunman to show up at my favorite punk rock pizza shop. YouTube has just this week banned the conspiracy; the F.B.I. has labeled it a domestic terrorism threat.

The president professed to have no knowledge of the group, and as a result could not disavow it, but then demonstrated specific knowledge of one of its core conspiracy theories.

The New York Times

In the days after his 2017 inauguration, Trump’s bizarre outbursts would take over the news cycle day after day, outburst after outburst. Now the world barely takes notice.

I am trying not to get ahead of myself, but in my morning writing I began to picture Trump after Biden wins.

I imagine him aging rapidly, leaving the White House the next day for Mar-a-Lago without waiting for January 20 and Biden’s inauguration. The Republicans in Congress and in Trump’s cabinet will continue with their machinations in the remaining lame duck weeks. They may send bills for Trump to sign in hiding in Florida.

Trump will continue to Tweet at odd hours in all-caps rants. But we will ignore them, especially after January 20 when they are no longer the words of a man who can blow up the world.

It feels wrong to imagine this before Election Day and to put it in writing. All effort needs to go into getting out the vote. But these are just words. And perhaps superstition runs the other way. Perhaps imagining and insisting on another world is the more powerful superstition?

Will Trump’s tweets from Mar-a-Lago maintain their power over the Republican base after he’s out? Will he run again in 2024 out of spite and for vengeance? Would he block a less-insane Republican from getting the nomination next time around? Nobody has the stomach for more of him in politics. Except, possibly, the people who vote in Republican primaries.

Four years from now, all the legal tactics, bureaucratic stalling and excuses will have churned relentlessly forward. We will all be sick of hearing about Trump’s scandals, but journalists and government investigators will continue to track down the answers to unresolved questions. Trump must know that reality T.V. doesn’t end with loose threads unresolved.

And then I thought about Biden. He is up for the job. He will right the ship. He is not young, but he’s been there before, he knows to surround himself with experts, to trust scientists, to take problems seriously and show empathy for people who can’t afford an Acela ticket (never mind a private jet, a golden escalator). And Kamala is sharp and ready.

I pictured this coming January 20. A solemn inauguration day without crowds because of the pandemic. Will they even build the stands on the capital steps? Instead of attending, Trump will not attend. He will tweet from Mar-a-Lago bragging about the size of his small inauguration all over again. At noon we will be done with him.

I thought ahead to 2028 and 2032. The Trump empire’s tax scandals and other misdeeds have forced the sale of Mar-a-Lago. All the towers that bear that name have been sold and rebranded, or stand in neglect, birds’ nests obscuring the gold lettering. The ex-President still uses Twitter, but social media users have moved on to other platforms. Trump is paying back his debts by selling personalized Tweets at a dollar a pop.

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19 Days: One Simple Trick

”One’s life has value so long as one attributes value to the life of others, by means of love, friendship, indignation and compassion.”

Simone de Beauvoir

When I started this series, I wasn’t sure what direction it would take or if I could sustain it for 100 days. With 19 days remaining, I have far more than 19 half-written drafts, notes, and ideas. And the next 18 days promise no shortage of news that will inspire outrage and trigger memories. But tonight I have no top issue in mind, instead I’m thinking about how this wraps up, what the concluding argument is, and what comes next. If the final days are as crazy as the rest of 2020 have been, there will be very few nights like this to pause.

If I have tried to get at one political idea through my art and writing, it is the idea that local matters, individual relationships matter, and that the sum of those relationships is what changes the big picture. Art critic Jillian Steinhauer put it well in her newsletter this week:

In the realm of politics, the macro view has always superseded and messed with my micro view. I look at the big picture—this country was founded on genocide and the brutal enactment of white supremacy—and I feel hopeless. But increasingly, thanks to talking to and reading the words of people smarter than me, I am maybe finally starting to understand that, in a way, the micro IS the macro—that, as much as writing letters to voters in Florida may feel meaningless, it’s what we have. We have personal relationships, we have conversations, we have the places we live, and we have the actions we take, which are often shots in the dark with unknown outcomes. I’ve long held back from doing things that didn’t feel like they were enough, but it turns out I was raised to believe nothing was ever enough. And if nothing is ever enough, then why would you do anything?

Jillian Steinhauer

It’s only natural that these big national presidential elections capture our attention. And this one more than any past election. The media focus on the Presidential contest is intense, and the power of the office is huge. But, if everyone who is engaged in Biden vs. Trump would place even a fraction of that engagement on local issues, we’d be in a very different place. I’m heartened by what I see around the country and here in D.C. on local issues, especially Black Lives Matter and ending the reliance on police and incarceration to solve problems. I think the longstanding gridlock in national politics between the inherently conservative Senate and relatively progressive House and a back-and-forth White House is helping more people see that change is most powerful and most possible at the local level.