election anxiety countdown

57 Days: Free Labor

Labor Day has a way of sneaking up on me. The sudden end point of lazy summer routines. Echoes of childhood. Butterflies in my stomach realizing school starts the next day. Am I ready? Do I have enough notebooks? What will I wear? Will any friends be in my classes? On my school bus route? Will the teachers be nice or harsh?

As an adult, I have carried these ideas with me. Labor Day as fresh start; as the end of vacations and the start of a busy few months until the winter holidays. When I had an office job — and even when I rented a desk at a coworking space — I would make an effort to dress sharper the day after Labor Day than I had in July and August to mark the occasion. An earnest solemnity for the work ahead.

The holiday itself went unremarked. After a long string of unstructured days, why celebrate the last of them? I’m sure my family had picnics on Labor Day weekend in some of those years. We had many July and August birthday celebrations, including the July 4th birthday of Uncle Sam. Perhaps we were done with celebrations by the time Labor Day came around. I recall a picnic or two with my dad’s coworkers from the power plant during the summer, too. Were these Labor picnics celebrating worker solidarity, descendants of the tradition established at the first 1882 Labor Day in New York City? Beer, bratwurst, volleyball on a remote rural property. No volleyball at the 1882 picnic, though (it was invented seven years later).

I am now reading Heather Cox Richardson’s West From Appomattox, which explores the culture wars following the Civil War as the northern system of free labor — the idea that workers were free to work under terms they agreed to with their employer — struggled to take hold in the south and west. Wealthy landowners in the south opposed negotiating terms with their black workers and instead worked to recreate the antebellum (literally “pre-war”) slave labor system through sharecropping arrangements and later in Jim Crow laws.

Labor Day is a celebration of the free labor movement and the organization of workers into trade unions that was its logical outgrowth. At least 30 states had made Labor Day an official holiday in the tradition of 1882’s NYC parade and picnic by the time Congress passed and President Grover Cleveland signed the law making it a Federal holiday in 1894. There were 44 states at the time. I couldn’t find a list of the 14 holdout states, but given the history of the free labor movement, I’m guessing it would be a safe bet to start with the secessionist states in the south and work your way towards the western territories where settlers had attempted to expand slavery.

Here is a depiction of the first Labor Day parade. I’ve highlighted some incredible details.

Source: Frank Leslie's Weekly Illustrated Newspaper,
 September 16, 1882 via Wikimedia Commons

How many of these signs have you seen still being carried today, at Black Lives Matter protests? At Occupy camps in 2011?











I wonder why this image isn’t taught in school, isn’t as well-known as the history of Thanksgiving, the fourth of July, and other secular U.S. holidays?

election anxiety countdown

58 Days: Phone

On Sundays I am posting the most constructive action I’ve run across this week to help end Trump.

Reclaim Our Vote is a volunteer-driven outreach campaign contacting voters of color in states where voter suppression tactics — mandatory ID laws, cuts to early voting, mass purges of voter rolls, systemic disenfranchisement, and gerrymandering — are most likely to affect the outcome of November’s election. These include: Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Texas. Reclaim Our Vote is organized with support from Black Voters Matter, Mi Familia Vota, Unitarian Universalists (UU The Vote), the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (RAC), the American Ethical Union, and others.

This week’s comes from organizer, activist, journalist L.A. Kauffman via Rebecca Solnit’s Facebook page.

Actual convo with a 60 y.o. Black resident of Houston yesterday, while phonebanking with Reclaim Our Vote …

Me: Our records show you may no longer be registered to vote

Him: I’m not?!

Me: Let me give you the website where you can check your registration status and learn how to re-register if needed

Him: Yes, please!

☎️ Phonebanking with Reclaim Our Vote is ideal for people who are:

1) phone-shy — in most cases, you’ll just be leaving voicemails (and data shows that 60-85% of those you reach, even with voicemails, will go on to vote)

2) lukewarm about the candidates — it’s a non-partisan effort, helping voters of color in vote-suppression states exercise their right to vote, not advocating for any particular candidates or party


3) too busy/anxious/stressed out to commit to regular phonebanking shifts — you can make as few or as many calls as you like, any day of the week, any time between 9AM and 9PM in the state you’re calling

You just need to do a simple, straightforward one-hour training to get started; they’re offered every Monday at 7:30PM

Sign up here, and look for the confirmation email in your inbox — it will contain the link to phonebanking info:

—L.A. Kauffman

Read more about voter suppression at the ACLU’s website. And, like oxygen masks on airplanes, make sure you are registered before helping others.

Past Sundays: Register to VoteLearn Anti-Racism,Adopt a State, Watch the Speeches, and Volunteer to Become a Poll Worker.

election anxiety countdown

59 Days: What’s In It For Him?

On Thursday, The Atlantic reported that Trump called American soldiers killed in action “losers” and “suckers”; that he did not want disabled Veterans to march in military parades because “nobody wants to see that”; that he said to retired General John Kelly near the Arlington National Cemetery grave of his son Robert, who died fighting in Afghanistan, “I don’t get it. What was in it for them?”

“[Trump] can’t fathom the idea of doing something for someone other than himself. He just thinks that anyone who does anything when there’s no direct personal gain to be had is a sucker. There’s no money in serving the nation. Trump can’t imagine anyone else’s pain. That’s why he would say this to the father of a fallen marine on Memorial Day in the cemetery where he’s buried.”

Friend of retired General John Kelly, The Atlantic

Never mind that volunteering for military service is the only obvious and sure way out of extreme poverty and desperate situations for many Americans. Service to something larger than yourself — helping others, defending democracy, protecting your country from danger — is a worthy reward on its own.

I expect and hope that this is the most important reward the Commander-In-Chief gets from the job of President in wartime or peacetime. If Trump asks, “what was in it for them” of dead soldiers, that means he does not see any of the above answers — helping others, defending democracy, protecting your country from danger — as his reward for the job. So, what’s in it for him?

I have plenty of concerns about how much we spend on military equipment and our decision to use military force, war, and killing as our means of engagement with the rest of the world, but those who serve are choosing to be a part of something bigger, are trusting our government to use force wisely for purposes the country’s democratically elected leadership stands behind.

Trump chose to run for office, but from the start it was not clear he wanted to serve. It’s not clear he has any interest in making sure we trust the military, in engaging with tough decisions about how to use force wisely.

How would he answer the question? What is in it for him? Money? Influence? Ego? Something else?

election anxiety countdown

60 Days: Temple Bells

Yesterday I dropped a quote about the traditional Japanese time system. I was curious to learn more. The system splits a day in to six units of daylight and six units of night:

The typical clock had six numbered hours from nine to four, which counted backwards from noon until midnight; the hour numbers one, two and three were not used in Japan for religious reasons, because these numbers of [temple chime] strokes were used by Buddhists to call to prayer. The count ran backwards because the earliest Japanese artificial timekeepers used the burning of incense to count down the time. Dawn and dusk were therefore both marked as the sixth hour in the Japanese timekeeping system. In addition to the numbered temporal hours, each hour was assigned a sign from the Japanese zodiac.


In a time before electrification, it makes sense that you’d have to pack in all of your daily rituals into the hours the sun was up. So, a gentle reminder that 1/6th of the daylight had passed would be a good nudge to keep moving in winter. In the summer, the comparatively spread-out time between each tolling of a temple bell might be a comforting. Then again in pre-electric Japan, I imagine there is much to be done in the summer months.

Still. I like the idea of the flexible hour, the stretching of time. It mirrors the way time feels. It seems to flow differently from one moment to the next: fast when you’re enjoying yourself or the company you keep; slow when you’re impatient, bored, waiting; slow when you’re young; fast when you’re old.

But if you were to start to think of every day as having six chunks of time, would you even notice the difference? You might get more done in summer than in winter, but the passage of time would always be six. There would be no winter days when it is dark at five. No summer nights when light stretches past nine.

Mechanical clocks that mimicked Japan’s variable hour clock proved difficult to create. As western-style mechanical clocks came to Japan, the simplest solution was to provide twelve different face rings — one marking off the daylight in each month of the year. But beautiful mechanical clocks built to tell traditional Japanese time — known as wadokei — did became both an engineering challenge and an art form.

Images: Wikipedia

It would be much simpler to create a variable-hour clock today without burning incense or resorting to custom brass springs and weights. In fact, the “dynamic desktop” feature of MacOS, effectively does this by cycling through photos of an identical scene based on the daylight at your location on Earth at the present time of year. But could we live by this clock?

It is hard to escape the thinking of time as fixed. I’m tempted to map my 6:10 a.m. breakfast, 5:20 p.m. quitting time, and 10:30 (sometime) bedtime on to six day-parts. But that would miss the point. Variable time is a time that is dictated by nature and the seasons rather than precision and productivity routines. Agriculture and survival were once tied to these forces in a way that shaped every choice made during daylight and darkness. With the internet in your pocket and regular communication with friends in a dozen time zones, it would be near impossible to live strictly by divisions of local daylight. The Metrobus schedule, the restaurants and construction workers outside my window would be hard to bring on board with my scheme, and their sounds are the temple bells that let me know when to work and when to rest.

I’m also now recalling William Kentridge’s The Refusal of Time, an installation I stumbled upon when it was at SFMOMA in 2017. It concerns, among other things, the importation of western time to Africa, and the human body as a clock wound up and counting down to the end of its time. You can measure out the next twenty five minutes and thirteen seconds as a fractional portion of your daylight hours, while Kentridge discusses the work in this video:

election anxiety countdown

61 Days: Workday

“On this day in 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed into law the Adamson Act, which established an eight-hour workday, with additional pay for overtime work, for railroad workers.”

The Opportunity Agenda

“…as late as a century and a half ago [from 1995] the Japanese day was not divided into twenty-four hours. Instead it was broken down into six equal periods whose lengths varied according to the seasons of the year. Even after they were imported, in the sixteenth century, Western clocks had to be mechanically adjusted to suit the old system of time.”

—Kenneth Frampton, Studies in Tectonic Culture

I’ve been working from home for a long time. Years before this Covid-19 quarantine. The promise of working from home is that you have unlimited freedom. You can schedule your day however you like, you can work from a beach hut in Aruba (if travel to Aruba is allowed).

Like a lot of workaholic tech bros and desk-chained jet fuel fetishists, I read Tim Ferriss’ fantasy memoir The 4-Hour Workweek. I did the math on dental holidays in Vietnam and Indian virtual assistants, but I couldn’t get it to add up.

That’s not entirely true. I do work just four hours some weeks — if “work” doesn’t count the work of creative writing and art-making and reading and learning and exploring the random ideas I might incorporate in to some creative project one day. Art doesn’t work on a railroad worker’s schedule.

Work for my paying clients comes in waves. Several projects might have deadlines the same week. Several clients might take December off.

The problem is that I can’t pay my bills if too many of those four-hour workweeks stack up. So I structure my day around the traditional nine to five, even when I don’t have a lot of work to do. I get up early to write before I feel guilt over not answer my clients’ workday emails. I put away my writing and focus on paying projects around 9 or 10 a.m. I rest midday with lunch and books or podcasts.

I quit around 5 or 6 p.m. and shift thoughts to fun and friends and distractions and dinner.

I don’t know that I’ve ever had a real 8-hour workday — at least not for more than a few weeks at a temp job. When I worked in politics and advocacy campaigns, the business hours were nine to five, but the culture was more like 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. Working less showed you weren’t committed to the cause.

When I worked in coffee shops and restaurants, the hours were highly irregular: four hours one day, ten hours the next. Sometimes I was looking for a forty-hour workweek and couldn’t get it. Other times I had two or three jobs. Twenty hours at an art gallery, ten at a restaurant, six in an odd job cleaning up a new gallery space or designing a website.

With unemployment skyrocketing and more and more jobs being automated, will there be eight hours of work, five days a week, for all who want them? As it stands, those with connections and schooling and privilege can get high-pressure jobs that demand sixty or eighty hours per week. Those without used to be able to cobble together two or three ten- and twenty-hour low-wage jobs to work the fifty or sixty hours needed to get by. What would it look like if the sixty hours at the high pay, high-pressure job were split in to two jobs? What would it look like if low-wage workers could get by on thirty hours instead of sixty?

election anxiety countdown

62 Days: Indoors

I’ve gone inside buildings a few times in the past two weeks. This is a novelty. I’ve been avoiding buildings other than my home since the start of quarantine in mid-March, ordering groceries delivered and meeting friends in the park if I go out.

My last couple of indoor outings that month were a concert at the Lincoln Theatre (Jonathan Richman, Will Oldham) and a poetry workshop at Loyalty Books in Petworth (Danielle is running a Zoom version of these throughout September). A few days later, D.C. Writers Salon, where I host morning writing sessions shut down and moved to Zoom. I’d had no one join me in person that last week. Early mornings are a tough sell even without a mysterious pandemic. On my way home on March 13, I noticed a line had formed down the block to get in to Trader Joe’s before 9 a.m.

With the calendar turning to September and the weather cooling, I’m thinking of all the indoor happenings that won’t be happening. Music venues. Movie theaters. Normally, there is a flood of cultural happenings after Labor Day. Those that are still happening are outdoors or on Zoom.

Restaurants are trying to get going again. They’ve set up shop in barricaded parking lanes. How welcoming will those be in November or December? Business looks slow even at these makeshift patios. The restaurant next door spent the weekend moving its equipment in to storage. They’re keeping their other shop across town open.

Today I’ve been reading about the underground film scene that blossomed in New York in the 1960s in J. Hoberman and Johnathan Rosenbaum’s Midnight Movies. The stories of Jonas Mekas, Jack Smith and Andy Warhol at improvised showings of amateur shot film had me dreaming up experimental art movie happenings, gathering friends and crowding in to the gallery downstairs, or taking over some theater. I imagined a film festival of all the strange and mundane clips we’ve taken on our phones this past year. But for now, it would have to be a quiet affair. A few people in the room at a time.

It’s still not safe to go indoors in large numbers. No crowded dance floors. No concerts. Everything is going to have to be outdoors for a while yet. The 9:30 Club, down the block from me, sent out an email with a blank calendar and a photo of its darkened stage today. A group called Save Our Stages is organizing to preserve the live music industry. I want them to survive, but I’m more worried about families staying healthy, paying the rent. Of course musicians’ families need to stay healthy and pay the rent too. Maybe let’s hope for good outdoor music weather in the meantime.

election anxiety countdown

63 Days: Cherry Picking

Today began with the sound of construction, as almost every day in quarantine has. A six-story building is going up right outside my apartment. The construction crews gather outside my window during the 6 a.m. hour and start their equipment around 7 most days. Lately, there has been a giant cherry picker climbing up past my second-story window as I pour my morning coffee. I’ve made eye contact with its operator twice while I crank my windows shut to block out some of the beep-beep-beep it makes any time the operator toggles one of its levers, which he does at frequent and irregular intervals so that the beep-beep-beep does not become a steady sound to tune out but a constant stopping and starting.

This morning there was a conference of construction supervisors as I tried to focus on my own thoughts in my writing. The beep-beep-beep was accompanied by their comments beneath my window about the work done so far. How the project was already a million dollars over budget. How shoddy this work or that work was. How many nails were used in those boards. So, that’s why they’re always running out of nails! How such-and-such contractor is the worst, shouldn’t be on these 18-month projects. I was stuck with them on that retreat center out in bumblefuck, Virginia. But these alleys! The rats! I killed one the other day They’re harmless. But you shoulda seen so-and-so when he saw a hypodermic needle laying there. Big guy jumped back about ten feet.


Cherry picker is not the technical term, but articulated telescoping boom lift is less evocative. A cherry picker is also someone who chooses facts selectively. Perhaps some of the construction supervisors were cherry-picking.

The deeper we get in to this pandemic and this election and the news of uprisings against police violence and violent provocations around the country, there is a lot of cherry-picking going on. It’s easy to find a scientific paper that backs up your ideas about the pandemic if you dig for one. Missteps in the past of recent victims of police violence are being shared widely, as though any of us have lived perfect lives, as though some personal flaw is a justifiable reason for police to shoot someone in the back seven times, to kneel on their neck.

Social media is built for cherry-picking. A cherry-picked link that few will read or fact check is divorced from context, distracts from the broader point. The poster walks away from the conversation while the internet chews on the cherry.

What is the opposite of cherry-picking? George Washington chopping down an entire cherry tree? Seeing the forest for the trees?

election anxiety countdown

64 Days: Crescendo

I finished Timothy Denevi’s Freak Kingdom today (earlier mentions here and here). The last sections concern Nixon’s reëlection and downfall. Denevi makes the case that the conflict against Nixon and all he represented exhausted Thompson and resulted in his last widely acclaimed work. Denevi is also explicit about the parallel he’s drawing between Nixonian fascism and Trumpian fascism.

The early 1970s quotes Denevi chose for the closing scenes jump off the page as if responding to events of the past week: the uprising following the police shooting of another Black American, Jacob Blake; the white supremacist militias who have trolled Kenosha and Portland escalating tensions; the bizarre Covid-ignorant, Hatch Act-ignorant Republican convention at the White House:

when poor Barry (Goldwater) unloaded that fateful line about “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice…” I remember feeling genuinely frightened at the violent reaction it provoked.

That is Thompson flashing back to the 1964 Republican convention as he writes about the “terrifying crescendo” of the “four more years!” chant at Nixon’s 1972 re-nominating convention. Goldwater’s line could as easily be delivered tomorrow when Trump appears at a Kenosha event its mayor has discouraged. I imagine the militants he’s refused to denounce (there “were very fine people, on both sides” of the deadly racist rally in Charlottesville in 2017, he said).

This may be the year when we finally come face to face with ourselves; finally just lay back and say it — that we are really just a nation of 220 million used car salesmen with all the money we need to buy guns, and no qualms at all about killing anybody else in the world who makes us uncomfortable…

The math is a little different in 2020. More used car salesmen. More guns.

And finally,

In May 1974, Republican congressman Charles Wiggins, one of Nixon’s staunchest supporters, tried to contextualize the mushrooming Watergate scandal: “These things go in fifty-year cycles,” he said, “from Grant to Harding to Nixon.”

Add another fifty and here we are. Let’s make sure we don’t have to wait for the Trump scandals to work their way through the courts and Congress after the election.