In Which I Rejoice and Despair: Montana Diary.4

If you’ve missed previous Montana posts, click to see: Day 1, Day 2, Day 3.

Here it is 7 pm and dinner was finished over an hour ago. This is a different schedule than I’m used to. In the office to work at 8, an hour-long lunch break at 12:30, then back to work till 5. (Except, that is, for me: I was so involved in what I was doing that at 5:15 I looked up and realized everyone had left the office. When I got back to the dining area ten minutes later, dinner was well underway.)

If you’ve read my previous posts, you know that I’m here at Project Vote Smart as a member volunteer, and that PVS has created the Voter’s Self Defense System, which makes non-partisan, unbiased information on legislators and candidates available to all of us. For example, PVS “digests key legislation in Congress and all 50 states into easy-to-understand summaries, making it easy to compare what your representatives said during the campaign with how they actually voted on the record.” Find out how much money candidates raised, and who donated. Find out where they stand on issues that matter to you. If you’d like to know more about what PVS does (and I hope you will), THIS page provides a good overview

So. . . on my first day I did two things: I spent an hour or two in an envelope-stuffing-and-stamping assembly line. I know that doesn’t sound very glamorous, but what went into the envelope is pretty sexy: The Political Courage Test, a questionnaire sent to candidates inviting them to provide comprehensive information on where they stand on relevant issues. You can have a look at the current test forms here.

But before and after the envelope-stuffing I worked at a computer; PVS invites all candidates to submit an issue statement, and I was asked to type up some of them for later input into the data base. I worked my way through a stack of pamphlets and letters from current candidates; several are running for Congress, a few for the Senate, some for their state Assemblies; there was even a statement from a write-in candidate from President.

Now, why the title of this post? Well, on one hand, the papers in the stack were from candidates in a number of states, many certainly first-time candidates, people of varied backgrounds and beliefs. The existence of those statements–the very fact of that stack of papers–is a philosophy, an idea, a political ideal made real. We live in a country where anyone can throw her hat in the ring. Anyone can put himself forward for public service because he see problems and would like to have a hand in solving them. People can form a society and decide that everyone living in it has the right to have a say in how things go. Obviously, we’ve never fully lived up to that ideal and, let’s be honest, throughout our history we’ve fallen far short. But the ideal itself, the fact that it’s our lodestar and it’s at play at all, well, that’s beautiful.

And so I felt sort of excited and joyful typing away at that computer. So why the despair? Well, as above, anyone can run for office and, apparently, anybody does. Even reading the most crackpot statements, or the ones that outline the opposite of everything I believe (and there were many of those), I was aware of the hopeful ideal of participatory democracy. But some of the statements were so poorly written, some made so little sense, and some were just so way out there that I couldn’t help but feel rather hopeless at the same time. These people might end up making laws in Congress next year?

I mean, honestly, this? “I support that, All citizens health care for healthy lifestyle to included, diagnosis, prognosis, treatment & therapy for physical & psychological well being.”

And this? “The BUDGET is BROKEN – We need to FIX IT & BALANCE IT.” (Sorry, but that’s a teenager’s capitalization, and I saw TOO MANY EXAMPLES Today of this KIND OF Creative capitalization! Plus exclamation points!)

How about this one? “What about Gibson Guitar, going on for 7 yrs: they get special wood from India for the neck of the guitar, workers at Gibson finish it here. Obama wants the work done in India -“ (I think the candidate is trying to address the problem of outsourcing, and wonder why she didn’t say so.)

Well, I have three more days of stuffing or typing or whatever else they’ll have me doing, and I’m looking forward to every minute of it. The pictures, above show (top) the envelope assembly line and (bottom) my computer station.

Click to continue to part 5 ⇰


In Which We Search For an Elusive Treehouse and Find an Ant Hill: Montana Diary.3

To see the previous Montana posts, scroll down.

It being Labor Day, we are not laboring, except, perhaps, under the impression that there is a treehouse on the property, and that we would be able to find it. Well, to be fair: several of the member volunteers have been here before, and some of them have actually seen the treehouse, so seven of us set off in search of it, knowing that whether we found it or not, we’d have an adventure. Here are my hiking companions, Carol and Bill standing, and L-R seated, Ann, Rae, Colleen, and Cathy. These are some pretty impressive human beings, let me tell you. And not just because they all crossed the rope bridge without complaining. (I went first! I went first!)

The hike took us through gorgeous woods, across fields, over bridges, past an impressive ant hill, up to an old cabin. We came upon the ranch’s three charming horses, one of whom took a shine to me and wouldn’t let me get far away enough for a good picture. It was a satisfying two-hour(ish) walk, and we never even found the treehouse. More pictures, including horses and rope bridge, below.

Tomorrow we start work at 8. I don’t know exactly what I’ll be doing, but this explains why I’m here:

“Here at Project Vote Smart, Americans young and old volunteer their time, take no money from special interest groups, and have committed themselves to an extraordinary effort that, if successful, will provide their fellow citizens with the tools for a reemergence of political power not known for half a century. Their idea is one you may have thought of yourself. It is a deceptively simple concept but enormously difficult to achieve and would not be possible without the collaboration of citizens willing to lay their partisan differences aside for this one crucial task.

Picture this: thousands of citizens (conservative and liberal alike) working together, spending endless hours researching the backgrounds and records of thousands of political candidates and elected officials to discover their voting records, campaign contributions, public statements, biographical data (including their work history) and evaluations of them generated by over 100 competing special interest groups. Every election these volunteers test each candidate’s willingness to provide citizens with their positions on the issues they will most likely face if elected through the Political Courage Test.”

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Click to continue to Part 4 ➤

Wherein I Trip in a Gopher Hole: Montana Diary.2, Illustrated

If you missed Day 1’s installment, it’s here. Of course I’ve come to Project Vote Smart to work, but today’s Sunday, a day off, and when I planned to come this week, I didn’t even think about the fact that there’d be no working tomorrow–Labor Day–either. I’m assured they’ll have plenty for me to do during the four work days I’ll be here, and in the meantime I have the chance to explore my surroundings and work on the music I need to learn for the concert I’ll be doing in Bozeman a week from today.

From what I gather (and there’s a lot I still don’t know), most of the staff, and all the interns who come for ten-weeks stints, are in their twenties. Then there are the member-volunteers who normally come for two weeks. The ones I’ve met so far seem to be retirement-age; I think I’m the “baby” among them. The ranch is surrounded by mountains. Around me are lakes, trees, birds with calls I’ve never heard before and whose markings I’ve never seen, fields, a stream with a consistent trebly music punctuated by a hand-drum sound, lots of sky, all kinds of insects (three of which have already wound up in my bathroom, and as some of you may know, I’m not so good with insects). The wind and sun are playing a game, a variation on the one in the old fable: one makes you put your jacket on, the other makes you take it off, and back and forth, back and forth; must be great fun for them.

This morning I took a walk with Cathy, mentioned in yesterday’s post; she’s been here once before, so she sort of knows here way around the property. We got only slightly lost, which was fine, because you don’t really get lost, and everywhere you go there’s plenty to see and hear.

Time to show you some pictures. The first one (if these are in the right order) shows the veranda of the building my room is in (I took the picture from where I’m sitting right now, as I type). You’ll see Cathy fording the stream, then me about to do the same. Carved on a bridge crossing the stream, a quote from John Adams: “Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people”; pretty much the raison d’etre for Project Vote Smart. The white thing on a piece of log? A salt lick (I had no idea.) Oh, I almost forgot: Gopher holes. In the field. Tripped on one and went down like a ton of bricks (I’m completely fine).

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Click to continue to part 3 ➾

Some Day Is Now: Montana Diary

I’ve been a very bad blogger, but I’ve just started on an adventure that gives me an excellent reason to get back on track. I left New York early this morning and am now at the Great Divide Ranch outside of Philipsburg, Montana, where I’ll be till next Saturday.

No, I’m not at a dude ranch or in rehab. I’m volunteering at Project Vote Smart, a non profit organization I’ve written about before. Is it unseemly to quote oneself? It may be, but here’s what I posted last year: PVS “is a completely non-partisan organization dedicated to the idea that a knowledgable citizenry is an empowered citizenry. With the click of some keys you can find out everything you need to know about candidates and elected officials: biographies, voting records, issue positions, public statements, campaign finances, and more.” You can find out where they stand on issues that matter to you.

For years I’ve been sending donations, and for years I’ve been saying some day I’m going to come here to volunteer. This year I decided there is no “some day.” There’s only now. And here I am. I arrived at Missoula airport this afternoon, along with a couple other volunteers. We were picked up by a group of young staff members and interns, and after a bit of shopping and dinner, drove the two approximately hours from Missoula to the ranch. A lot of the staff and longer term interns are recent college grads, many of whom majored in political science, communications, journalism, international relations. The ones I’ve talked to so far, on the ride to the ranch – Colleen, who arrived today and will be here for ten weeks, and staffers Rachel and Masha – are pretty impressive. Member volunteers, like me, normally come for two weeks, which I’d originally planned to do. But exigencies of life made two weeks problematic, and the folks here were kind enough to let me come for just a week. I hope I’ll be able to contribute something of value while I’m here. It may be as simple as envelope stuffing or data entry, and that will be fine.

Before I close this post, I want to say something about why I’m here, how I feel about participatory democracy, and why I think it’s so important to vote, even if we don’t like any of the parties or candidates. Since I wrote about that once before, I’ll do the unseemly again and link back to my October 2010 post (geez—have I had the blog that long??). And of course I encourage you to visit Project Vote Smart.

Click to continue to part 2 ☛

I Found My Thrill On Daffodil Hill

I’ve lived in New York a long time. A LONG time. I’ve been in an urban environment pretty much my entire adult life, and there are times, let me tell you, there are times. . .

Thankfully, I have the Brooklyn Botanic Garden for getting away from it all. The BBG has become my happy place, and will remain as such, I’m sure, as long as I live in Brooklyn. I’m glad to report that things aren’t entirely out of whack, seasonally-speaking — only somewhat. A few cherry trees are in bloom, but most just hint at the glory to come. The lilacs and roses are nowhere to be seen, which is good; it’s March, after all. But the daffodils, yes, the daffodils are doing exactly just what they’re meant to do. The magnolias are magnificent; the white star magnolia gave off the most delicious, delicate, spicy scent. Aaahhh! There are camellias and primroses and periwinkles. The bark of a crape-myrtle. Turtles and ducks making the most of an unseasonably peaceful day. I heard a bird call and looked up, up, waaay up to see a spot of vivid orange against the branches and clear blue.

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Winter Garden

Dust of Snow
 – Robert Frost
The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree
Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.

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The birthday present I gave myself today was simply a trip to my beloved Brooklyn Botanic Garden. The need to spend more time gets stronger and stronger. This afternoon’s visit lifted my spirit on this January day.