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election anxiety countdown

56 Days: Temporary

The day after Labor Day was always the first day of school when I was growing up in Minnesota. Even now, with nowhere to go, in pandemic life at home, and having worked for myself these past seven Labor Days, I feel like today is the start of something. More New Year’s Day than New Year’s Day itself. The first day walking in to a new job with big hopes for how it will turn out.

In Hilary Leichter’s novel Temporary a young woman passes through an epic series of strange new jobs, approaching each one with hope that it may lead to stability. The assignments are like tests from the gods, and the whole story has the feel of the Odyssey (though a brief 208 pages). This unnamed woman’s quests are far stranger than the parade of odd jobs I’ve held. But I couldn’t help thinking of my own journey as I followed hers. I imagine that’s why Homer has had staying power too.

While reading a section where the young woman works for a hit man and is forced to decide if she wanted to succeed in his field, I was transported to a temp agency in Minneapolis circa 1996. The agent handed me the #5 bus schedule and told me if I showed up that afternoon I could start right away. “The bus is right out front. You’ll be there in twenty minutes,” she promised. The job was at Target’s credit card collection department. In the sixty seconds it took me to get from the temp office to the street, I imagined all the desperate people who’d maxed out their credit at Target buying detergent, clothes and diapers. Imagined my new life harassing them, trying to squeeze out payments. I imagined my new boss would have a quota or bonus system for getting the most people to pay up. I tossed the bus schedule in the trash and walked home in the cold. The temp agent called that night to check on me (landlines in those days). She was worried I got lost or fell in a ditch when I didn’t show up, but I’m sure her commission was on the line. Temp agents have to get paid too.

Earlier, Leichter’s hero and another temp are assigned the inexplicable task of opening and closing doors and drawers. And this reminded me of a job “prepping” corporate documents subpoenaed in a huge class action case. “Prepping” involved placing a numbered bar code sticker on every trivial piece of paper with writing on it. Indecipherable notes on a yellow legal pad. Typed pages in triplicate. Pinup girls torn out of magazines and forgotten in a file folder for sixty years. If pages were stapled or paper-clipped, I had to remove the staple or clip and write down that barcodes number 356,780 through 356,786 were stapled. The corporation surely settled the case out of court long before the mountain of boxes were bar-coded. Every time I hear of a giant lawsuit, I imagine temps in hundreds of office towers, in hundreds of downtowns, going through boxes like these.

I admire Leichter’s pacing in jumping from one adventure to the next. Embracing the realm of fantasy helps Leichter move fast. The world of her story is a sort of dreamland where recurring settings need only be described as “the prison” and “the bank,” a good lesson in distilling the essence of a story — even in you are talking about Eastern State Penitentiary and Farmers and Mechanics Bank of Cincinnati. Similarly, the characters who stay with her on her lonely journey are often little more than descriptive names — the chairman, the tall boyfriend, the favorite boyfriend — yet have all the substance they need to carry their role in the story. As a writer who has been pursuing epic scale for years, getting bogged down by specifics, there are liberating lessons here in distilling a story to its essence.

The new job this day-after-Labor-Day is writer. It’s one I’ve come back to again and again. It is rarely a paid gig, but still a job (among several) to be taken seriously. It’s been with me long enough that I shouldn’t think of it as temporary, but it always feels like a fleeting chase for stability when I get on a streak of publishing regularly (like this series for now 44 days). Here’s hoping next Labor Day I’ve avoided for another year taking the #5 bus to work for credit collectors or hit men.

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election anxiety countdown

80 Days: Nostalgia

It feels like I only go backwards, baby
Every part of me says, “Go ahead”
I got my hopes up again, oh no, not again
Feels like we only go backwards, darling

—Kevin Parker / Tame Impala

I’ve been watching movies on most Friday nights during quarantine. Last night, picking a film seemed hard and staying awake for it seemed unlikely. Instead, I browsed a collection of video playlists I didn’t know were on my TV’s Apple Music app. The top playlists starred musicians whose careers I hadn’t followed, artists I knew as celebrities with no connection to their sound. But soon I found two playlists I was curious to play out of pure nostalgia: Classic Indie Videos, and ’80s New Wave Videos.

With these videos on in the background, I sat down with popcorn and my reading list. Top of the list was to learn more about hauntology, a concept an old friend mentioned in an email this week. She was speaking in terms of activism, the idea that we fight the last battle, are stuck trying to get to a utopian future that is no longer possible to get to because it was a vision from a time in the past. New utopias are possible, but they require looking at the present with clear eyes rather than holding on to the past.

Writing new utopias is how Future Cartographic started, so the idea is one I’m interested in. And this series began with a haunted memory of losing the election of 2004. But last night the cursory internet research on the topic was overwhelming for a sleepy Friday night. Mark Fisher is the author my friend mentioned, and I started with this interview. Much of the online conversation about hauntology is tied to culture, and music in particular says Fisher:

I mean, the whole 21st century music scene could be described as nostalgic: where is the sense of the future now? Today, if you ask people what is “futuristic music,” they would reply electronic music from the 90s, or even Kraftwerk, and stuff like that. In a way, we still rely on an old future.

The video playlist included a number of songs I love and short films I had either never seen or had forgotten about. Others were vivid in my memory. When they were new to me, they offered the promise of a future filled with unending surprises in sound and film and art. Many were low tech — “lo-fi” and grunge sounds, videos with no special effects — and showed the potential for making your own media before iPhones and ubiquitous internet.

But now, these videos are mainly a comfort. They remind me of past selves: The Breeders’ Cannonball directed by Spike Jonze, which reminds me of eating with college friends next to a dining hall video jukebox in Wisconsin; Depeche Mode, Cure, and Smiths videos, which remind me of dancing at the Black Cat here in D.C. pre-quarantine — dance nights themselves oozing with nostalgia (for me) for hanging out and going to shows in Minneapolis in the 1990s; Mazzy Star, whose CDs I played night after night as I drifted to sleep when they were new.

Music videos are not something I think about much these days, but I do pay attention to new music. I wrote earlier about my boss in a 1996 mailroom who was attached to his classic rock radio station. I understand the desire to surround yourself with pleasant and comforting associations from the past. But new futures, a path forward, imagining utopia, requires pushing past nostalgia to understand the present.

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election anxiety countdown

86 Days: Learn Anti-Racism

On Sundays, I interrupt this improvised narrative with a short post on a course of action. One concrete thing I’ve done, or that I pledge to do to help defeat Trump in the fall. It’s a sacrosanct tradition that dates back to last Sunday (we’re only 14 days in).

It has not escaped my notice that the authors and friends and colleagues I’ve mentioned so far have been mostly white. And while I’m hardly living in luxury on my design and writing income, it is a luxury to sit safely at home and write for 100 days as others — predominantly people of color, here in D.C. — work in frontline health, service, and delivery industries with an increased risk of exposure to Covid-19. 

Though I have worked for progressive advocacy and cultural organizations in the past and have taken on histories of systemic oppression in past art projects, I know I have more work to do and the work does not stop.

The murder of George Floyd on Memorial Day in Minneapolis, walking distance from where my grandparents, parents and I lived through much of the twentieth century, has been a moment to reflect on systemic injustice. My family and well-intentioned white people in Minneapolis and across the country have benefitted from — and continue to benefit from — systems that excluded Black people, Indigenous people and people of color (BIPOC) just as much as overt racists who raise the confederate flag. 

I will have more to say on all of this in the weeks to come. For today, one concrete step you can take is to pledge to keep educating yourself. As the election nears, discussion of racism, the racially coded language used by Trump and his allies, and of policies that disproportionately and systemically impact BIPOC are sure to remain part of the conversation. 

There are many books and resources I might point you to. But the best resource is the one you actually use. Anti-Racism Daily, a newsletter published by Black wellness entrepreneur Nicole Cardoza arrives each day in your inbox in an easy-to-read and use format. It takes just a minute or two to read that day’s issue. Related stories and resources are always a click away to explore further. Sign up here.

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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.