Digging a Hole

Monday, December 12, 2011

Obligatory Work Blog

Oh, werd?
I just found out that my job has a blog! Who knew? I am going to use my blog to write and edit a post for that blog. If I get posted, I'll link it up.

Kerry's Work Blog Submission

It's December, and I just saw lightning. At first, I thought it was the strobing LED peppermint candy Christmas lights, but then I got a text message from a trainee:
"Kerry, what do we do when there's lightning?"

As a seven year field organizing veteran, this is not the worst weather I have ever seen, but it will definitely crack the Top 20. My umbrella has been shredded, and my clipboard is almost too wet to sign. The last stop of my night is a house with a seemingly endless driveway where a young mother has *not* promised to write a letter and leave it on her door. She didn't say "no" either, though, but she promised to think about the issue after I left and write the letter if she decided she agreed, so here I am climbing her driveway in driving rain because canvassers are inherently optimists.

Currently in New Jersey, our canvass staff is gathering letters to support the Child Safe Playing Fields Act, legislation that would prohibit the use of toxic pesticides on ball fields and playgrounds where children play. It's a great bill, but apparently some NJ legislators are concerned that, without pesticides, the dirt will get so hard-packed that children will break bones when they fall on it. Memo to NJ politicians: In several months of canvassing on this bill, I have heard many concerns raised by parents and landscapers, but not once has someone pondered the femur-shattering power of organic soccer fields.

One thing that young moms do worry about is predatory insects, chock full of the zombie apocalypse virus, lying in wait on the ball fields. The young mom of this December thunderstorm raised that question immediately. Good news! The bill specifically addresses the ball fields and the playground equipment, not the other park areas. Mosquitoes breed in standing water, and ticks like to hang out in wooded areas and tall grass, so unless your local parks and rec team built a swing-set in a swamp or likes to keep the grass on the soccer field at three feet to slow down play, these should not be problem areas.

But what if ticks slather on the sunscreen and venture out of their native habitat and onto the short, sun-washed grass of the local soccer fields? Maybe the tick parents wanted them to learn about teamwork and signed them up for a youth tick soccer league. Maybe there are tick parents preparing orange slices for after the match right now! Well have no fear New Jersey parents. The Child Safe Playing Fields Act provides exemptions for immediate threats to human health, such as tick youth soccer leagues.

What the act is designed to do is protect kids where they play from chemicals that can impact their development or irritate their lungs. Chemical applications for aesthetic purposes are the true target of the act. We can have lovely playing fields for New Jersey's children without covering them in toxins to take out the dandelions. And besides, what is a Little League right fielder supposed to do if there are no dandelions to play with? Pay attention to the game?

Hopefully, the young mom whose driveway I was climbing had come around to this line of thinking, as well. I stepped onto her stoop, looked at her door, and there it was - an envelope stuffed with letters in support of the bill with pictures drawn by her children. I plucked them out of her Christmas wreath and tucked them into my coat. One more mother for clean and safe parks.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Beast vs. Beast

Oh, werd?
In the cold dark of December canvassing, the shadows can play tricks on an organizer's eyes. The sun sets shortly after our 4pm start, and though Christmas lights are a welcome break from the relentless dark, it is common to feel that you are the only human creature who has dared to venture outside for miles. In an upper income neighborhood of giant "poppin' fresh" mansions, the quiet is even more severe. The ground has been sterilized by chemical lawn treatments, and now winter has sterilized the air as well. The front windows of most houses are dark as they look out from mostly ceremonial living and dining rooms decorated with chairs that nobody uses and pianos that nobody plays. It's cliche, but it's true.
Even the Christmas lights in these neighborhoods are sterile. Neatly spaced on rooftops that no common man could possibly scale, it is clear that the family hired somebody to decorate their home for them. There were no blown fuses, parents dangling from ladders, or mixed breed dogs barking at extension cords here.
In a neighborhood like this one, a canvasser survives relentless torment from the self-assured Right while waiting for one or two magical contacts.

Self-assured man (add your own upper income accent): I can't possibly support this.
KPd.: Okay... well have a happy holiday.
SAM: Don't you mean a "Merry Christmas"? - My dog! My dog is loose!
***tiny barking dog bursts into street***
SAM: Mildred! Mildred come back! Milly Milly! Mildred!
(I am not making that up.)

One local mother invited me in a little too quickly. It didn't take much for me to conclude that she was using some version of "mother's little helper".
Local mom: Do you like my lights?! Do you like my flowers?!
Friendly, but intense.

By 8:45 pm, I had had about as good of a night as you can ask for in the poppin' fresh suburbs. I decided to take one last look at a dead end that I hadn't seen yet, just to see if anyone was clearly up and about. One house looked inviting, but it was set back behind some tall shrubs, and I try to be mindful of frightening people at the end of the night. Across the street from me, a large husky barked and patrolled the edge of its invisible fence.
Invisible fences are a potential danger for canvassers. On a large property, an organizer can find themselves well beyond the invisible boundary before they realize that a large dog is tearing around the side of the house. I have taken to whistling and calling out before venturing onto a fresh upper income lawn after a dog bite last spring left a small scar in my right calf.
While the husky barked and stalked the worn grass at the edge of his property, another larger dog barked menacingly from a back deck. I watched from across the street. This dog had been locked onto the deck for some reason, but both dogs were unattended. I took a last longing look at the large, set-back house and decided to call it a night. Just then, the larger dog burst from the deck.
He raced for the property's edge with a snarl that any living creature would recognize as ill-intentioned. Instinctively, I realized that this animal was not planning on stopping at the invisible fence, and was headed straight for where I stood, on the other side of the street. As his collar desperately beeped, warning him that he was drawing close to the underground wire that supposedly enclosed him, the giant rottweiler, easily weighing as much as myself, tore towards me with an intent to injure. I yelled for help, but the sterile darkness of the new suburban community muffled my cry. Buffered by libraries, home offices, and formal living rooms, nobody heard my desperate scream. This was going to be between me and the giant rottweiler. Beast versus beast.
The dog crossed the wire without pause. I raised the only weapon at my disposal, my clipboard, and prepared for battle. The dog moved so quickly that it seemed to surround me. Finally, it leapt for my face. Without thinking, I swung my clipboard across the side of its head. Thwack! The dog was stunned but enraged. It circled again, but then it suddenly seemed to notice the incessant beeping and shocking coming from its collar. Still threatening, it returned to the edge of its "fence" and resumed barking and stalking me. Terrified to cross past that house again, I cut through some woods and walked about ten minutes out of my way along the shoulder of a busy rural road.
Upon hearing the tale, my fellow canvassers high-fived me and offered to buy beers to celebrate. Nobody considered not going back out again tomorrow.
Forget stopping fracking. Forget pesticide-free playgrounds. On this night, I battled a more concrete foe. And won.
I don't ever want a desk job.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Adventures in Small Government

Oh werd?
The DMV has always been a bit of a hell hole. The rapidly deteriorating 1950s facade opens to grey walls lined with posters from a 1990s New Jersey tourism campaign. I won the New Jersey and You, Perfect Together essay contest in fourth grade, but it lives on in the NJ DMV. Pink plastic chairs dulled by years of impatient behinds are crammed together entirely too closely for an OCD sufferer to feel at home. And then there are the crowds...
On the last day of the month, and perhaps on other days as well, the DMVs overflow with crowds of confused people being bullied by state employees. The crowd itself is a fascinating cross section of North Jersey. Everyone in the license renewal line is essentially randomly selected from the population of Jerseyans who drive. If that analysis is true, we are an even more diverse section of the planet than even I had proudly assumed. The flu virus was flying at me in several dialects as a wide variety of humanity coughed and sneezed in the entirely too closely packed pink chairs.
In order to renew a driver's license in New Jersey, you must report, in person, to your local DMV with your "Six Points" of identification. Once upon a time, the walls were still grey, the chairs were still pink, and the facade was still 1950s, but there were a few more staffers available and residents had the option of renewing by mail. No longer. Now the typical excited 18 year olds fresh from their road tests are joined by octogenarians who can barely stand in line. Perhaps forcing people to alternately stand in line for half an hour, sit in pink chairs for half an hour, and then stand in line again is our secret way of making sure that only the fittest residents receive their renewals.
Aside from calisthenics, the other barrier to license renewal is being able to assemble the Six Points. The DMV website will walk you through the formula, but it appeared that very few NJ residents with November birthdays use the internet because it was rare that someone approached the first desk without frantically combing through a purse or wallet for one last "Point".
"Does my CVS Extra Care Card count as a point?" "No."
"But I have a receipt too!" "No."
The other possibility is that these were all secretly Tea Party activists determined to demonstrate the inefficiency of the socialist DMV, but the crowd was way too diverse so probably not. As I watched one parent berate the desk employee about how her son's Little League card should count, I began to feel a deep sense of sympathy for DMV staffers.
After receiving my piece of torn cardboard with "Wayne DMV" and the number "88" scrawled in Sharpie on one side and planting myself in a pink chair, I took a moment to consider the thought exercise of "could this be done better?" What would a private market for driver's licenses look like? In a free market, I personally would choose the licensing company that made me sit in the fewest pink chairs next to the fewest likely TB patients.
Person next to me: "Cough hack cough phlegm cough."
But that would probably mean not making people show up to renew at all. Would the private market be able to both make me a happy customer and serve public safety?
KPd.: "Oh, hey Eric!"
Eric: "We failed inspection."
KPd.: "Crap. What was it? Brakes?"
Eric: "Oh no. They don't check any of the safety stuff anymore. Thanks Governor Christie. No the only thing they test now is emissions. And we failed."
KPd.: "Irony sucks."
So, in NJ, you still have to show up for inspections, but nothing is actually checked, except air quality. The ghost of liberal governments past.
But if your car is a death trap with a visibly broken windshield and no mirrors? No problem! Another happy customer - er, citizen. I wouldn't mind waiting in the inspection line a tad longer in order to ensure that the car next to me on the Parkway can't explode, but then I'm a fan of Ralph Nader.
After an hour and a half of standing and sitting, I got my new license. I think I developed an appreciation for the patience of the DMV employees, too. But if small government and privatization are not the best guarantors of public safety, could we maybe consider a public/private collaboration in just the waiting area? Maybe someone could sponsor some larger, more well-spaced chairs.