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election anxiety countdown

97 Days: A Circuitous Path

During the 100 days leading up to the election of Donald Trump in 2016, I was an artist in residence at D.C.’s Halcyon Art Lab (then S&R Foundation) north of Georgetown. I had been paid to work on the last two elections, so it was strange to be on the outside, not traveling to a swing state to knock on doors, not crafting updates responding to every sliver of breaking news. 

The art studio was located in a century-old former elementary school. I learned that D.C. had sent only white children there before the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education outlawing segregated schools. While working in the building and learning this history, it occurred to me that my parents were in elementary school when Brown was decided — not ancient history at all. If they had grown up in D.C. instead of Minneapolis, they might have attended such a segregated school. But northern cities had segregated schools too. Courts forced Minneapolis schools to desegregate in 1972, citing a long pattern of neighborhood boundary manipulation that included the South Minneapolis neighborhoods three generations of my family called home.

The project I developed that fall involved a lot of digging in to these kinds of histories and a lot of abstract, contemplative exploration on foot and in archives. It was in some ways a response to how I spent the previous two presidential election years. Working ten- and twelve-hour days at a political organization, I found little time for detours, nuance and creativity. I had come to believe that imaginative local work is a better way to bring about change, even though that sort of thing doesn’t scale.  

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election anxiety countdown

98 Days: Flip A Coin

In the 100 days leading up to the election of 2000, I was living in South Minneapolis, working as a barista downtown and attending classes part-time at the University of Minnesota. 

The conversation at the coffeeshop and on campus was a cynical one. The salacious Bill Clinton impeachment spectacle turned some off from politics altogether. Others felt left out by his centrist compromises. If a Democrat could enact harsh restrictions on safety net programs, build prisons and celebrate corporate media consolidation, what was the point of participating in the two-party system at all? The idea that both parties were guilty of selling out to big corporations was everywhere. At least on the left. Large protests shutting down the World Trade Organization in Seattle the previous fall had united environmentalists, labor unions and others in opposition to the undemocratic and exploitative side of globalization. But these ideas may have come too late, or seemed too extreme to shape the 2000 presidential race. 

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election anxiety countdown

99 Days: A Turning Point

I was living in Philadelphia during the run-up to the 2004 election and working my final few weeks at a nonprofit art gallery. I had been at the same gallery on the morning of 9/11, had watched George W. Bush turn that unifying tragedy into a power grab with the hastily passed Patriot Act and the opening of wars in Afghanistan (somehow still going 19 years later) and Iraq. The Philadelphia I’d begun exploring on foot, bike and transit in early 2001 — like cities everywhere — became an increasingly hostile place as money flowed in for barriers, surveillance and police. Months earlier, I had taken a bus to New York to join the huge march against the Iraq war, but the election was fast approaching. What could one person do in the finite days remaining?  

My friend Claire invited me to a MoveOn meeting on voter turnout at St. Peter’s Church on Pine Street. High voter turnout in our heavily Democratic Philadelphia neighborhoods was key to winning Pennsylvania, the organizers explained. I did a bit of volunteering for that effort in the weeks that followed, but calling strangers and knocking on doors made me nervous. Instead, with that seed of an idea about voter turnout in mind, I spent much of that fall making voter-themed street art and postcards, and encouraging other friends to do the same. I don’t know if anyone voted because of our strange stickers and stencils and postcards, but the effort felt a lot more constructive than sitting at home and fretting about all the dire news. 

Vote bird
A postcard my friend Katie created for the 2004 election.

A few days before the election, a band of cyclists from Portland arrived to crash with Claire. Or perhaps they knew her activist/artist roommate Elena, who I’d met through an arts program at Temple University. Their multi-level apartment — a tangle of stairs and bedrooms and awkward rooms split with partitions atop a giant old Spruce Street row house — had been home to a half dozen friends in quick succession around that time. Its rooms were a collective resource passed on from friend to friend when someone moved away or moved in with a lover. 

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election anxiety countdown

100 Days: The Start of Something

We are 100 days out from the U.S. presidential election. This will be the seventh I have been eligible to vote in. Of the previous six, three went the way I voted and three did not.* It’s the losses I have been thinking about as this election nears. Not because I believe Trump will be reëlected, though it is possible. But because the losses hurt more when you wonder after the fact if you might have done more to help. Better to do what you can now.

As a writer and artist living in quarantine in a place certain to vote against Trump (Washington, D.C.), it is hard to know what more to do these next 100 days other than write, make art, and hope that some of it ripples out to places where the vote is more likely to be close. And so, I’ve recently reconfigured this site to help me do that. There are plenty of places for punditry and analysis of breaking news, I have no interest in that, so I find myself asking again, “what is the conversation you want to be having?”

It may take 100 days to find an answer, but the ties between current events and the books and film and stories I’ve been immersing myself in will surely be part of it.

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election anxiety countdown

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.