This piece is in progress. I’ve been so busy reading the news and watching the midterms that I missed my own deadline for finishing it. It turns out, there’s more to the story than I first realized, but in the spirit of election day… here’s part of my story of civic responsibility. Now go vote!!
Mom pulled the lever and the curtain closed behind us. The fabric was old and industrial. Sort of green, sort of gray, a little smelly.
Looking up at what appeared to be thousands of little switches, I struggled to read the words next to them, but I couldn’t see much above that lever. So, I leaned my forehead against the cold gray metal of the machine.
My mother told me to “straighten up”.
“You flip the switch by the man you want to pick,” she said “we close the curtain so no one sees who we choose”.
I didn’t know why it mattered. I knew who she was going to pick. President Reagan was a good president. Everyone loved him, why wouldn’t she pick him?
When she had finished flipping switches, she pulled back the lever and the curtain opened again. She told me that’s how our vote got counted. I thought the lever worked the curtain, but it counts votes too?
I decided the lever must be magic.
“Voting is an important part of being an American”, she told me as we walked to the car.
“When can I vote?”, I asked, eager to play with the little switches.
“When you turn 18”, she said, “you can register.”
It felt special, like I would have an important place in the world. Her simplified explanation of civics resonated in my eight year old brain. I felt a connection to the things we learned in school. What we had just done behind that curtain, came to define American adulthood for me.
When I did turn eighteen, I registered right away. Excited to be a real adult with a say in running the country and a stake in the conversation at home. I’d already been singing professionally for years and paying taxes on the money I made at that very grown up job. Gaining the right to vote was my reward.
Finally! I had a voice.
The first time I got to pull the lever for myself, I felt the magic. Standing alone behind that curtain, about to make my voice heard, felt like a celebration of everything I’d learned about America. Like Thomas Jefferson was high-fiving me through time.
I flipped the Republican switches because my parents had told me to, but still, I felt like a part of something. Then we won and I had helped chose the Governor. Not only had I voted, but I’d picked the right guy!
Six years later, in 2000, I knew I picked the right guy. I remember stepping into the booth that day, around the block from my upper west side apartment, and running my fingers along the top row of switches. Bush/Cheney. Gore/Leiberman. Nader… and “what’s her name?”.
I paused there, hearing my grandfather’s decades old rebuke of the ballot my grandmother cast for JFK and my Step-dad’s lectures on fiscal responsibility and ending the era of “tax and spend” (whatever that meant). But I also heard my mother telling me that my vote was mine the first time we pulled the lever.
I told myself, “No one wants a C student running the country. Besides, they can’t see what you do behind this curtain, there’s no one to disappoint.” When I flipped the Gore/Leiberman switch, I flipped it hard! It was my first taste of independence and it was delicious.
But when the Supreme Court declared Florida’s recount of questionable ballots unconstitutional, I was positive the system had been gamed and I took it personally. It was the first time I’d made my own choice, not one that family politics had dictated. The fact that we lost on a technicality, a manufactured technicality, felt like utter bullshit.
Sixteen years and four election cycles after the chads were left hanging, I was playing a gig when news of Trump’s infamous “Access Hollywood” tape dropped. I could see the television from the small stage in the back corner of the restaurant.
As black-clad servers wove their paths through a maze of tables, I watched, transfixed, from behind my guitar as CNN’s closed captioning blocked out the dreaded “p” word again and again.
Letting the latest low point of American politics sink in, I turned my attention back to the audience. Happy diners, eager to get their weekend started and oblivious to the shit storm unfolding on the news. I pulled the lever in my mind and closed the curtain, hiding in plain sight.
I’m not there to speak out, I’m there to entertain, no matter what I’m feeling. I’m devoid of politics as a performer. At my level, I have to be. I don’t have the luxury of fame or followers or a platform. I’m just a working musician.
I watched as a mom, two tables from the stage, helped her daughter with a stubborn ketchup bottle and I felt a rush of relief that I didn’t have any kids to whom I have to explain why our public discourse now includes the word “pussy”. I took comfort in the familiar buzz of a room half paying attention and consoled myself with the thought that this had to be what would finally bring the bastard down.
The next day I planted a Clinton/Kaine sign in my yard. Not exactly speaking out, but still revealing more of myself to my neighbors than ever before.
A month after Pussygate, America had a choice to make. A choice between a well qualified, if unlikable professional female and a bloated misogynist with daddy issues and a penchant for navigating bankruptcy law.
On my way to the polls that day, I ran into several friends on the street. We’d been watching the predictions from inside our liberal bubble since summer and felt confident that we’d win. It was exciting. We just knew this would be another night of crying tears of joy into our prosecco, like when Obama won in 2008. One guy even said, “I’ll see you tomorrow, when Hillary’s President.”
So, I proudly cast my ballot, confident that the electorate would do the right thing and save America from a Trump presidency. I was convinced common sense would win out. Seems stupid in retrospect.
That night, we gathered with friends to watch history being made, and it was.
As the map on the screen turned red, my heart sank. I got drunk. Really drunk. I tossed back whiskey after whiskey, convinced that America was over. Mom lied. We don’t get to pick the president… again. But this time was different. What was happening was truly unthinkable.
I found out later that Mom, you know, the woman who showed me the magic lever, had shirked her civic duty, along with almost half the country. I couldn’t believe she sat the election out. Even after the pussy tape, she was unmoved. I was crushed.
I couldn’t imagine skipping an election, let alone 2016. I mean, voting’s not a huge ask and it’s sort of crucial to the thing we call democracy, but whatever. I also couldn’t imagine not being able to decide between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. It’s like if you went to a restaurant and the waiter asked, “would you like the chicken or the giant lump of crap”? And you were like… “hmmmm, I’m soo tired of chicken… does the crap come with mashed potatoes”?
After the inauguration, I was angry and disillusioned. Everywhere I turned people were saying, “get involved in local politics. That’s how you make a difference”.
I wanted to make a difference, to be a part of something with meaning, since the system had failed again. Actually, I wanted to go back in time and push that bloated bastard right off that escalator. But instead, a neighbor suggested I run for Village Trustee and for some reason, I took him seriously.
Mom was incredibly supportive of the idea, so was my grandmother, who I know voted for Trump. We never talked about it, but she’s told me more than once how much she hates Hillary Clinton. You know, because of all the lying.
Nothing made sense, how could these women support me, yet be so casual about such a crushing blow to feminism? How could my grandmother cast a ballot for a pig? I started questioning everything.
Despite, or maybe because of all these contradictions, my idealism clawed its way to the surface and I agreed to join the Democratic ticket in Athens. It was terrifying.
I was scared of speaking out. Scared that people wouldn’t like me anymore, because I thought everybody did. And that would be the key to my success. It was as a performer, why not as a candidate? But I found out you can’t make everyone like you and make a difference. You can’t be honest or share your views, and keep everyone on your side. I mean, I couldn’t even call out Nammy for her Trump vote!
The experience was eye opening. I was amazed at the parallels between local politics and the national show. The Republicans we ran against were all Trump supporters and they’d been given permission to play as dirty as Donny.
They attacked us for all the things I’d been taught, by my midwestern Republican family, to value: our educations, our culture, our homes and careers. I thought that because we all lived in this tiny village together and we saw each other at the store or on the street or at the bar, there would be some greater level of civility. That as small town citizens, we could rise above the rhetoric and disrespect so common in our national public discourse. But those aren’t the times we live in. We’re living post “pussy”, and as angry and disillusioned as we Democrats were, we failed to realize that our Republican counterparts were feeling the exact opposite. Validated. Fired up. Invincible.
So, they said what they said, but when we did see each other, we mostly ignored one another. I never even met the guy running for mayor on their side… officially. There was one speaking engagement at which we stood next to each other. I knew who he was and he knew who I was, but we never said hello or shook hands. I thought he should make the overture, he must’ve thought the responsibility was mine. Maybe we were scared of one another… it probably wasn’t that.
I also never addressed any of their negative whisper campaign. Had I attacked them for their lack of the merits they found elitist in us, I just would’ve sounded more elitist, right? And I saw myself as someone who could bridge the “us vs. them” gap. So, I “went high”, opting for civility. I decided to be “nice”.
On election day, when I walked into the village senior center to vote for myself, there was no lever, no curtain to hide behind. Not literally, not figuratively. Just a little table with a sharpie and a privacy shield, it made me miss the metal booth with its ugly curtain and tiny switches. But seeing my name on the ballot made me, once again, feel like I was a part of something bigger, something people fight for.
I’d never been more sure I wanted to win. I filled in the bubbles next to my running mates’ names first. Then I took a deep breath and let my sharpie hover over my bubble. “Maybe”, I thought, “I’ll win this and I will make a difference. Maybe this is just the beginning…”
By the end of the night, I’d lost by 20 votes. Which doesn’t sound like a lot, but that was out of about 900 total votes. In a village of about 1800 residents. It seemed we were suffering from the same malignant apathy as the rest of the country.
Of course, I blamed myself. Maybe if I’d been true to who I am, made my voice heard. Not been so damned polite. But I couldn’t ignore that voter turnout. That was where most of our campaign efforts went and still, we failed. The thing is, if more people came out to vote, engaged in the process, things would be different. Everywhere.
The next morning, I plucked our campaign signs out of my yard and stowed them in the garage next to Hillary’s, in what I now refer to as the hall of losers. Oddly, I felt a sense of belonging.
People immediately began encouraging me to run again. I wish I wanted to. It feels like something I should want to do.
Originally, I had a great idea for the ending of this story. It was a tidy one, clever with a bit of recall from the opener that I could weave through it and use to sew it up neatly. But the more I wrote the more I realized I was lying to myself.
Magic isn’t real. It’s a tidy ending to a complicated story that I don’t fully understand. Now that I’m an adult, I know all about the failure of Reagan’s flawed “trickle down” policies. I know things aren’t simple. I’m not naive about the process, or unaware of the fact that our government has been ambushed by a wealthy and powerful minority. But my vote, my voice, remains sacrosanct. That’s the one lesson that I hold on to.
So, maybe I haven’t exactly retained my optimism, but I am engaged. More so than I’ve ever been. I take it all in and try to keep what’s true even as it makes less and less sense. I hate that. I want to make things fit, so the world makes sense again, the way it did when Mom explained America.
So much of my personal journey has been a sleepwalk, but still, I can’t turn my back on the democratic process. The lever is still there, maybe it’s not magic, but it’s the only voice we have.