Monday, November 19, 2018


“Who you looking for?”

I turned from the door I had just knocked on. Parked at the curb in front of the house was a pickup truck, and sitting in the passenger seat was a young African-American guy. I told him the name of the woman that was on my sheet.

“She’s at work.”

“You know if she’s planning to vote?”

“Nah, I don’t think so.”

I left a couple of doorhangers on the knob and walked toward the truck. “How about you,” I asked. “Are you going to vote?”


“Why not?”

“Don’t seem to change much.”

This was not a conversation I imagined for myself when I decided to volunteer this election season. This conversation was, in fact, the furthest thing from my mind.

But let me back up.

Sometime early in 2018, I told myself that I was going to do something more for the midterm elections than just vote and fume at the news on my phone or TV. I wanted to contribute—money, time, whatever—instead of sit on the sidelines and maybe wonder on the morning of November 7th if I could have done more. So in September I came across a group via Twitter—“Flip the 49th – Neighbors in Action,” which was mobilizing efforts to turn my congressional district from red to blue by getting Mike Levin more votes than his republican opponent.

The people there were amazing. Lots of energy, and not just from the young men and women who did the bulk of the organizing, but also from the rank-and-file workers, many of whom were retired and spending the equivalent of a full-time job in the office, on the phones, or on the streets knocking on doors. It was a broad-based coalition that included various area union members as well as a passionate group of suburban women who were members of “Moms Demand Action,” a group committed to stronger gun control laws. At every turn, I was inspired by the spirit of activism and the dedication to devote one’s time and energy toward positive change.

Still, though, I had a few simple rules. I would do whatever they needed, but I would NOT make phone calls and I would NOT knock on doors. Need voter IDs to enter? Say no more. Need something moved? I’m your guy. But interacting with strangers—about an election, of all things, and in a nuclear environment, no less—was not something I was going to do. No how, no way.

Perhaps you can see where this is going.

In the face of the raw energy and enthusiasm of these people, my stupid rules didn’t stand a chance. And I’m glad they didn’t.

On my second day volunteering, our organizer, a young woman named Elizabeth, asked if I would call a few people to try out the new phone system. There were others willing to do this, so I passed.

On my third day volunteering, she asked if I would call a few people to let them know about an upcoming canvass. Fuck it, I thought. “Sure.”

I left about twenty phone messages until I got a real live person. She was excited, totally on board, but had recently moved to Florida. I asked if she was voting for Gillum and Nelson, and she said, “You better believe it.”

The next real-live person I got told me that she had been writing postcards for Katie Porter (who at this writing was just declared the winner in the California 45th race) and making calls for some Democrat Senate candidates around the country.

The conversations continued, and the people I spoke with were either doing other things—sometimes A LOT of other things—with various elections or wanted to do more. Nobody yelled at me. Nobody hung up on me.

The next step was canvassing—knocking on doors. Okay, I thought. I’ll give this a try, but I’m going with someone who’ll do all the talking. So, at my first canvass, I teamed up with a guy named David, who had done this before. And after a few doors and conversations, I thought, I can do this. So I did.

Let me say this about knocking on doors. The first few are the hardest. That is, the first few people you actually talk to are the hardest. The fact is that you knock on many, many doors with no response. But eventually you get a door where someone answers. My early conversations were awkward, to say the least. I started from a place where I felt that I was imposing on them, wasting their time, selling them subscriptions to a magazine or some equally lame product.

But the thing is, that feeling came mostly from me. Like the phones, nobody yelled, nobody slammed the door in my face. Their demeanor noticeably changed when I identified myself as a volunteer. I guess when you meet someone who’s using his or her weekend time to knock on doors, the least you could do is listen. What powered me through was the simple fact of what was happening: two citizens having a conversation about our democracy. The campaign’s plan was to target low-propensity voters, and the reason for this wasn’t simply to get people to vote for Mike Levin in this election; it was to get people to vote (hopefully for progressive candidates) in all future elections. It was about welcoming people into the democratic process, about letting them know that they had a voice and showing them how to use it.

And then suddenly it was election weekend. So what did I do? Sign up for four straight days of canvassing, of course.

All told, from Saturday to Tuesday, I walked over twenty-five miles, knocked on probably close to a thousand doors, and had over a hundred conversations with people. Not only did it not suck, it was actually fun. A few highlights:

A young woman who thought she was in some kind of trouble, but was visibly relieved and then pleasantly shocked to find out that I was just there to make sure she was going to vote.

A mom and daughter who saw Flip the 49th’s coordinated freeway sign drops, were impressed by the fun everyone seemed to be having, looked up Levin’s positions when they got home, and had already voted for him by the time I knocked on their door the night before the election.

A Spanish-speaking grandmother who wasn’t planning to vote with just a couple of hours left before the polls closed. My canvassing partner, Sandi, and I implored her to vote, especially since her polling place was just around the corner. Her daughter appeared at the door and translated for us, joining our call to get out and vote. Sandi—a grandmother herself—told her that she was knocking on doors so that her grandkids had an environment to enjoy. We watched as the daughter and her mother went back and forth, and even though I don’t speak Spanish, I could tell that her resolve was softening as her hand came to her chin and she said “Donde esta something something.” Her daughter smiled at us and said, “I think she’s going to do it.”

Not every encounter was great. One house had a Levin sign propped up against it, half-hidden behind a bush. The woman on my list wasn’t there; her boyfriend or husband answered instead. When I gestured to the sign and said, “Well, it looks like you’re Levin supporters,” he replied, “She didn’t have my permission to put that up.” After a couple seconds of telling myself how not to reply, I just said, “Well, have a nice day,” while sending his girlfriend or wife powerful psychic messages to tell him what he could do with his “permission” and dump his knuckle-dragging ass.
And then there was the young man in his truck who said that he didn’t vote because it “don’t seem to change much.”

I recalled my training from the day before, about how this was Get Out The Vote (GOTV) weekend and we had a lot of doors to knock on, so the last thing we wanted to do was waste time in pointless conversation. The objective was simple: confirm support for Levin and then help the person make a voting plan. Anything else was time lost, and we needed to just move on.

I thought about all of that and promptly ignored it. My role as canvasser was pretty new to me and stood no chance against my over twenty-five year role as a teacher. I wasn’t about to just move on.

So I explained a little bit about voting. Not about how you register or absentee ballots or where and when you do it, but about voting. About how that simple action was anything but simple for many people for most of the history of this nation. About how men and women, white and black, young and old, were cursed, spat upon, beaten, and even killed so that every citizen of legal age could cast a vote. About how not voting disrespects that long history of sacrifice and struggle. And about how many of the people in power are thrilled beyond belief that he—this young man sitting in his truck—doesn’t vote. In fact, they count on it.

He nodded thoughtfully, and I’m not fool enough to believe this was much more than him being polite to some privileged, crazy old white guy. I asked him his name, told him mine, shook his hand, and said that I hoped he would reconsider his position on voting. As I walked to the next door, to the next potential voter, I thought of Jack Nicholson’s line in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest after he fails to lift an impossibly heavy marble fixture and hurl it through the window so that he and the other inmates can go find a bar and watch the World Series: “But I tried, didn’t I? Goddammit, at least I did that much.”

All in all, my experiences guarantee that this wasn't simply a 2018 Midterms thing for me. I'm in for the duration, for as long as we have elections. Democracy is a funny thing. We speak of it in very high-minded and abstract language, taking its endurance for granted. But it doesn’t just exist. It needs a lot of care and attention, and it’s one of those things that if it’s neglected, it will die—a lot more quickly than you would think. And on the surface, maybe the position that voting doesn’t “seem to change much” sounds true, but it’s not. The greater truth is that while the Wheels of Change turn slowly—sometimes excruciatingly so—they do turn. But not unless we put our hands on them.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

'Tis the Season

Well, it’s that time of year again—the festive lights shine bright, the holiday music pumps out over every available sound system, and a familiar early-December refrain greets my ears on at least a twice-daily basis.

“I really need to pass this class.”

With final exams and the end of the semester bearing down on them, many of my students are now in full-on panic mode. The Reckoning is here, and all the missed classes, botched quizzes, and didn’t-bother-to-do-the-readings are knocking at their doors.

In all honesty, I never gave much thought to my students’ “I really need to pass” before; I would typically dismiss it with a shrug or an offer to go over their grade with them. But I’ve been thinking about it more and more lately, and I have a new response that I can’t wait to try out.

“Why tell me?”

There’s a big assumption underlying their statement that I can’t ignore. When they tell me that they need to pass my class, what they’re really doing is transferring the responsibility of their grade—of their education—over to me. They’re saying, You alone can pass me…please do so. But I’m not Santa Claus with a bagful of passing grades, and what they need to realize is that I’m not the one they should be talking to. Instead, early in the semester and then over and over again throughout it, they need to repeat “I need to pass” to themselves.

And then act accordingly.

What does “act accordingly” mean? Here are a few observations that may offer a clue: it’s never the students who show up every day who say “I need to pass.” It’s never the ones who bother to read the material, or who engage in class discussion, or who come to my office hours to go over assignments, or who manage to stay awake and off their phones during class. It’s the ones who mistakenly believe that the “opportunity” to earn a degree is the same as the “right” to have one, the ones who think that simply having a seat in the classroom is enough.

The fact of the matter is that the stakes (not to mention the costs) of education are at an all-time high, and the margin for error is slimmer than ever. Assuming a student can even complete a degree—much more the exception than the rule for the underprepared multitudes emerging from high school today—there’s still a job to find after graduation, and if you’re saddled with debt, then that job had better be a pretty good one. But those jobs are in short supply, and if you’re competing with huge numbers of applicants, you’d better set yourself apart from the crowd with some important basics, like having a strong work ethic and being the person who cares most about your education.

So to any students reading this who have ever told (or continue to tell) your professors that you “need to pass,” here’s a suggestion for a New Year’s resolution: make sure you tell it to the right person.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

In Memoriam

How do we handle loss? We’ve all felt it ourselves, or stood next to it, or watched it unravel the lives of strangers. But what do we do with it? Where do we put it?

In several of my classes this year (2018) and last (2017), we read Amy Waldman’s 2011 novel, The Submission, a book that examines the depths of loss and the tensions that arise in attempting to acknowledge and contain it. The setup for the book is pretty simple: it’s two years after 9/11, and a committee has been formed to select a winner for a nationwide contest to design a memorial to those killed in the attacks. It’s a blind competition, so no one knows anything about the designers until one is selected. The committee chooses the winning design, and the designer is revealed. His name is Mohammad Khan, and he’s a Muslim. Naturally, controversies unfold and lives are damaged--some irrevocably.

Amidst these controversies, several issues emerge, and our discussions have tried to address all of them. For the purposes of this post, I want to focus on two: the complexities of public memory and the purpose of memorials. Khan’s design—a garden laid out according to rigid geometry—is meant as a public monument that will contain and reflect the personal memories and emotions of those affected. But given the plurality (and sometimes cross-purposes) of these memories and the racial tensions in our society, the difficulties of this task become too much to overcome.

And yet, these characters need to remember the dead, to offer some memorial to them, to gain closure and begin to heal. In one scene, near the end, a character honors his dead father by placing a small stone cairn in the corner of a garden. Waldman writes, “With a pile of stones, he had written a name.” The gesture is minor but meaningful. It is, in fact, the only real act of memorializing in a 300-plus page book about a memorial.

To connect more closely with the spirit of this character’s act, I decided that my students and I should create a memorial of our own—one that would be both individual and collective. So I bought a couple of bags of river rock at Lowe’s, hauled them to class in a bucket (nearly dislocating my shoulder in the process), and asked each student to take a few and place them somewhere on campus in memory of a family member, friend, or pet. After they found their spot and “wrote a name with a pile of rocks,” they took a picture and sent it to me with the name of the person memorialized. The rocks were meant to transform our campus into a group memorial comprised of individual acts of remembrance. And because people or weather or time will undoubtedly unstack these rocks, the pictures were meant to make permanent our memorial (as only the Internet can).

So here I present the memorial created by my Fall 2017 and Spring 2018 “Introduction to Literature” and “Critical Thinking through Literature” classes, a collection of pictures, stones, names, and stories (these appear down in the “Comments” section of this post):

Barbara Ann Neely

Andrea Nunez


Milo Fantone

Grandma Kiki

Rodolfo De La Torre

Chase Butterbean Robertson

Grandma Susanne

Martin Lopez

Thomasa Butler

All the Victims of School Shootings

Oscar Sotelo

Corporal Adam Wolff

Grandma Eunice

Art Vogel

Teresita Lozaro

Danita Raminha

Dwayne Drakeford

Michael Kahl

Nancy Carrol Nolan

Grandpa Bill

Grandpa Daniel


Nicacio Carapia

Jesus Gutierrez

Eileen Bender

Caliope Diacantaonis

Barbara Maple

Denise Delossantos


Joseph Tamborelli

Haley Knoll

Elton Gregory Joseph

Virgilio Lopez

Barbra Racheck

Uncle Mike

Jesus Hernandez

Byeonghyeon Min

Cliff Wenzlick

Daniela Pereyda, Francisco Malfavon, and Muffy

All the people I can't forget

Anna Marie and Porter Meisland


Burl Dean Ellis




Darrell Von Driska


Kitty Hart



John Gillmore



Doug Durrant (1st)
Doug Durrant (2nd)

Homero Perez

Carlos Preciado

Martin and Kai

Lexi Dale

Mina Sabeghi


Rajih Maida and Menum Barakat

Aunt Chansey

Adrian Avila

Ralph Richter


Rosa Garcia

Mike Kinsella

Gerald M. Bloomfield II


Olivia McClellan

Thomas Zielinski

Thomas Versaci



Ernesto Edraisa


Garland Ayers

Richard Peterson (Grandpa Pete)

Joy Smith


Brendon Arce


Victims of the Las Vegas shooting (1st)

Victims of the Las Vegas shooting (2nd)