For those thinking it’s better not to vote at all than to cast an ignorant ballot

In 1986 I was a young working mother too overwhelmed by responsibility to keep up with politics. But I felt an obligation to vote. In the Illinois primary election I entered the booth knowing nothing about the candidates. Afterward, I discovered that out of ignorance I had cast my ballot for a man running for lieutenant governor whose extremist views were abhorrent to me. Fortunately, though he won in the primary, he lost in the general election.

Since the 2014 election doesn’t include a candidate for President, a lot of people haven’t been paying much attention to politics. They’re thinking, like one young woman I recently spoke with, “It’s better not to vote at all than to cast an ignorant ballot.”

Instead of choosing between not voting or casting an ignorant ballot, consider a third possibility: Take some shortcuts to getting the information you need for making an informed vote.

  1. Check the website of an organization whose opinion you trust. During election time many special interest groups post endorsements. If the environment is the issue that most concerns you, seek out the guidance of an organization such as the Sierra Club (http://content.sierraclub.org/voterguide/endorsements) or a local environmental group. If you’re particularly concerned about equal pay for equal work, check the National Women’s Political Caucus (http://www.nwpc.org/2014endorsements) or see if your area has a Women’s Chamber of Commerce. State Bar associations often evaluate candidates for judicial positions.
  2. Get a sample ballot ahead of time and fill it out. One is usually available online, at a party precinct office, or at the poll. Have your choices recorded on that ballot, so that all you have to do is transfer them. And yes, it is better to leave some blanks than make an uninformed guess.
  3. When you get to the voting booth, take along the sample ballot.

Whoever wins the 2014 elections will make laws related to the environment, the workplace, reproductive rights (accessibility to contraception as well as abortion), education, college loans, and immigration.

It’s your life—your future, your children’s future—that’s being determined. Vote.

Why the November election is important for young women, part 2

You’ve just changed jobs, and this one’s really demanding. You recently moved. Maybe you struggle just to get by financially: work, sleep, work, maybe socialize on weekends. A romantic breakup has you tied up emotionally. In any of these scenarios you feel too stressed out to give much thought to voting in November. And you certainly don’t want to cast an uninformed ballot.

But the November, 2014, elections are especially important to women. While we won’t be electing a President, we will elect women and men whose decisions impact our daily life.

Here are suggestions on how you can quickly find out which candidates best represent you:

1) Choose one or two issues that are most important to you: the environment, education, reproductive rights, income inequality, the national debt, immigration, racial justice, gay rights, taxes, health. There may be another issue that personally affects you.

2) Find out who’s running for office. You’ll need to know what district you’re in. votesmart.org is a helpful site, or Google your state’s name and “voting districts.”

Yes, there are a lot of positions to be filled, but don’t let yourself be overwhelmed. I suggest you pay particular attention to just five office holders: at the federal level, U.S. Senator and U.S. Representative from your district; in your state government, governor, your state senator, and your state representative. Your U.S. Senator has a six-year term so may not be running this year. Your governor might not be running either. In this case you only need to learn about candidates for three or four positions.

3) Now begin matching the issues you’re concerned about to the person. Again, votesmart.org is a helpful site, though it does seem to give the person currently holding the office more prominence. Also, it can be a little confusing in that it identifies individuals who already lost in primary elections.

4) Go to candidates’ websites. Check them out in social media, Facebook in particular.

5) Ask someone whose opinion you value who they’re voting for and why. Then go to the candidates’ websites to make sure their stance on issues agrees with yours.

Only a hundred years ago women fought hard for the right to vote. Some went to jail, many were publicly humiliated. (My grandmother was among the first generation of women to cast a ballot.) When they did finally get the right, many relied on their husband to tell them who to vote for.

As a woman today, you have more education and experience “out in the world.” You can decide for yourself who supports your values, what candidates will work to ensure the best future for you, your children, our country, and our world.

Don’t let a few individuals determine the future for you.

Contraception and why you must vote in November

When it come to your reproductive rights, not voting in November makes as much sense as having sex without protection. Sure, you can take your chances, hope you don’t get pregnant. Likewise, you can risk letting other voters decide who will make laws that directly effect you. In fact, those most strongly opposed to women’s reproductive rights can be depended on to show up at the polls.

In the oldest section of many cemeteries you’ll find the graves of young women next to stone slabs inscribed with “Infant daughter” or “Infant son.” Only a hundred years ago, when my grandmother was in the early years of her marriage, Margaret Sanger was arrested for giving out information about birth control. Deaths related to childbearing were not rare, and large families overwhelmed many women. I was among the first generation of women to have access to birth control pills.

Last September Cosmopolitan ran an article, “11 Politicians Standing Between You and Your Birth Control” http://www.cosmopolitan.com/health-fitness/advice/a4845/politicians-anti-birth-control/. In primaries leading up to the last presidential election, Republican candidate Rick Santorum openly spoke of his opposition to many forms of birth control, including the pill. Legislatures in several states keep whittling away at women’s rights to contraception and abortion.

Check now to make sure your voter registration is up to date. You must change your registration if you’ve changed your legal name or moved to a different precinct. This site may answer your questions: http://www.eac.gov/voter_resources/ive_moved_recently_can_i_still_vote.aspx

And be sure to vote November 4.

 

Putting our tax refund to good use

I’d like a second TV. My husband wants a more up-to-date cell phone. We’ve talked about using our tax refund for new porch furniture. I wouldn’t mind a day at the mall. No matter how we resolve this dilemma, one thing for certain: we’re likely to spend our refund on STUFF we don’t need.

Googling “quality of life,” I found nothing affirming the importance of STUFF. Instead, sites mention health, safety, education, political freedom, employment that pays a living wage. I’ve added beauty to the list. But for all of these things there is a cost, in most cases made possible through taxes administered by local, state, and national governments.

Medicare, created and overseen by the government, contributes to keeping many of my generation healthy. The Affordable Care Act has the potential to do the same. The safety of our community depends on police and fire personnel. Governmental agencies monitor toxins in the air and water, bacteria in our food. (I don’t trust Duke Energy, Chevron Corporation, or Armour Meats to monitor themselves.) Of course, someone has to enforce laws related to air, water, and food. Our community’s quality of life depends on schools providing a competent workforce that can read directions, make accurate calculations, apply critical reasoning. Our political freedom is guarded by people we elect to office and in worse-scene scenarios, by the military.

Beauty connects us to the Holy. I added it to the list because we need places undisturbed by urbanization or corporations that exploit the land. Through parks and environmental monitoring government protects mountain vistas, clean waterways, ancient trees, and threatened species. Beauty is also found in museums and concert halls. When not subsidized by taxes, access is available only to the wealthy.

All of these quality-of-life issues cost money.

North Carolina has a $445 million shortfall this fiscal year. Yet legislators keep promising not to raise taxes. Yes, taxes are a burden on those who struggle to pay for basic needs. For those of us, though, who aren’t wealthy but keep accumulating STUFF—paying a few extra dollars in taxes would not create hardship. And surely millionaires can contribute more to guarantee a quality of life all can enjoy. How many houses does a person need? How many cars? How many designer dresses?

What is good citizenship, if not doing what we can to support the common good?

Republicans, please give us reasoned information.

“Have you always had such strong political opinions?” a new friend asked. Not until the last presidential election, when Republican candidates started opening their mouths. Like Herman Cain, with his, “When they ask me who is the president of Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan…” And Rick Santorum’s “One of the things I will talk about, that no president has talked about before, is I think the dangers of contraception in this country.” Need I mention Michele Bachmann’s and Rick Perry’s remarks?

Now, in getting ready for the next election, the GOP is again insulting the electorate’s intelligence.

When I taught middle school, most language arts curricula included a unit on propaganda, that is persuasion techniques that rely on manipulating information to suit the purposes of advertisers, politicians, etc. If a recent Op-Ed piece by Buncombe County GOP chairman, Henry Mitchell, is any example (“King Obama is above the law,” Asheville Citizen Times, Mar. 28), it appears that Republicans are counting on readers having forgotten those lessons. Mitchell resorts to the following:

Namecalling: “King Obama,” he writes; “ultra-liberal N.C. Sen. Kay Hagan,” “cowardly media” and “the Obama/Hagan/Asheville ultra-liberal progressive political machine” (so many words strung together in hopes that one might contaminate the others).

Repetition: The Republican talking points against Obamacare have been repeated so often that polls show uninformed citizens accepting the criticisms as fact.

Showing part of the picture: (See Repetition, above.) Mitchell says nothing about North Carolina’s Republican legislators and Republican governor sabotaging Obamacare at every turn, or about the national GOP’s refusal to help develop a viable health system. He does not mention that 9.5 million previously uninsured Americans are now covered through Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act.

Demonizing the enemy: In using the term King Obama and referring to “stunning law-breaking power abuse” Mitchell loyally follows Republican talking points about an imperial presidency. Again he fails to mention the obstructionist tactics of the GOP, which have left Obama with no choice but to use the power the law allows.

Creating false dichotomies: He would have us believe that Obama does not value the Constitution while Republicans, of course, do.

Citizens deserve more than propaganda and emotional tirades. We deserve well reasoned arguments about real issues. But we also have responsibilities. We must wean ourselves from relying on sound bytes and become better informed about the issues. We must do the hard work of critical thinking.

 

Change that scares the dickens out of me

Growing up in the segregated South of the 1950s, I lived in an insulated world where everyone in my circle of influence was white, working class, and, as far as I knew, heterosexual. A “good” black man stayed on his side of town. A “good” white woman bought the best detergent for her family. Girls who got pregnant suddenly disappeared. Aspirin was the drug of choice.

Change we can believe in? How about change that scares the dickens out of me? For I’m part of the Silent generation, Americans between the ages of 66 and 83 who need a map to navigate this new world. OK, not a map: a GPS. My identity can be stolen, my whereabouts tracked, my private conversations monitored. And there’s all that technology I don’t know how to manage: the DVR, features on my cell phone, having to plan my own itinerary on the internet.

But equally disconcerting for me and my generation is the change in values. Teens and young adults engage in sexting and get hooked on drugs. Children are murdered at school. Sex and violence permeate TV programming. It’s little surprise that my generation, which has witnessed such enormous change, tends to hold conservative positions on social issues and is either angry or frustrated with government (http://www.people-press.org/2011/11/03/the-generation-gap-and-the-2012-election-3/).  We fear for the future of our families, our country, and our world.

What do frightened people do? They place blame. It’s the government, It’s the schools. It’s the parents. It’s Obama’s fault. Behind the blame is a yearning for simple solutions. If we just allowed prayer in the schools. If young women would just say no to premarital sex. If poor people would just go out and find a job. If the government would just quit interfering.

But to stay stuck in simple solutions perpetuates stereotypes of—yes, I’ll say the words—old people as complainers. It also makes us irrelevant.

An alternative is to live in the NOW. That is, we can seek opportunities to be with people who represent our changing society: those who are younger, of a different race, ethnic group, or sexual orientation. Not to preach or speak fondly of the past, but to listen and withhold judgment. Standing with them rather than against them might just make a heap of difference.

 

When tragedy has a name

The Milky Way stretched across the clear night sky. Over the vast expanse thousands of individual stars were discernible. To my right, Polaris. Vega, almost straight overhead. From the multitude above me I could identify only a few. Astronomers, though, know many others by name. Knowing a star by its name makes a difference in how you look at the night sky, I’ve decided.

Recently I had the privilege to lead a concurrent session at the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society Conference. About 250 (I’m estimating) amateur genealogists gathered to learn more about how to trace their ancestry. By “amateur” I’m not implying these are beginners. No, they’re quite sophisticated in searching data-bases, locating cemeteries, and combing all kinds of records. Over and over I witnessed the satisfaction, delight too, of attendees who have identified slave ancestors. In many cases family oral histories have led genealogists to search manumission papers, ownership records of slaveholders whose surnames slaves took upon emancipation, military records of the United States Colored Troops, and Social Security Applications.

A name. Sally, female slave on XTZ Plantation, mother of Mr. G.’s grandfather. Willy, male slave on UVW Plantation, father of Mrs. L.’s great grandmother. Not simply a slave, but a real person, a woman or man who breathed and labored and loved. That, I think, must be the reward of searching for ancestors, finding a name. So that slavery becomes not just a historical event, where millions suffered and died, but central to a personal narrative.

A name. Malala Yousafzai. We Americans have shaken our heads in sympathy for Muslim girls denied an education by the Taliban. Along comes the story of a sixteen-year-old Pakistani girl shot because she spoke out on behalf of girls wanting to attend school. Not a faceless girl but a real one.

The photos of children in Sudan and Ethiopia, in Sao Paulo and Port-au-Prince—like the stars overhead their names are unknown to us. Polar bears and Bengal tigers are disappearing. We know no polar bears or Bengal tigers by name.

When stars or people or animals have names, they matter more. A people captured and enslaved, girls denied an education, children starving, animals facing extinction.

Many in our community lack good medical care. Children go to school hungry. Veterans suffer from PTSD. Women are battered by husbands or boyfriends. The mentally ill sleep under bridges.

What would happen if we learned their names?

Politics—who cares?

I’ve been trying not to care. It just makes me worry, deprives me of sleep, interferes with writing fiction. Reading the newspaper and watching the news on TV make things worse.

In my stop-caring campaign, I remind myself that retirement benefits, while not allowing luxury, do provide my shelter, food, and clothing. So it doesn’t matter to me when funds are cut to food stamps and programs that feed the indigent. My older neighbors who lack basic necessities should go live with their kids. If young enough to work let them get a job like I did. (Forget that my parents sacrificed for my college education so I could earn an adequate income.)

I no longer need a job, so why should I care if minimum wage is $7.25 an hour and a single mother would have to work 15 hours a day/7 days a week to earn $40,000? It’s probably her fault she’s single anyway.

I have health insurance that supplements Medicare. If my back aches I call for a doctor’s appointment. Others in the country have no health insurance at all. Not my problem.

I’m white, registered to vote, and have a drivers license. The older lady down the street—her friend regularly drives her to the library, which does not require a birth certificate for a card. In fact she long ago misplaced hers. What do I care? She’d probably vote for candidates I don’t like anyway.

The planet’s getting warmer, bringing draught to farmlands, flooding to shorelines. By the time things get really bad I’ll be long gone.

So what if a woman at age 45, who already has three young adult children, gets pregnant and isn’t allowed, even upon her doctor’s recommendation, to have an abortion? I’m past child-bearing years. Her crisis has nothing to do with me.

Yes, I’ve been trying not to care about these things.

But in my Bible I read, “Woe to you that are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you shall hunger” (Luke 6:24-5).

And my grandchildren say “I love you” as they hug me. I want fresh air and water to be in their future. Adequate shelter, food, clothing. Freedom from debilitating illness and financial ruin. As I want for all children.

I dare not quit caring.

Politics and canned tomatoes

During the summer of 1973—while I canned fifty quarts of tomatoes, fifty quarts of tomato juice, and twelve pints of catsup (not to motion the green beans and corn)—less than two hundred miles away Men in Power were asking what did Nixon know and when did he know it. Toiling in my narrow kitchen—with its five feet of counter space, a Youngstown metal sink, and an ancient four-burner electric stove—I devotedly followed the Senate Watergate Hearings on a fifteen-inch black and white TV. I wanted answers too.

Frequently I’d interrupt the flow of work to wipe my sweating forehead with the tail of my sleeveless blouse. Operating all at once, the four stove burners rivaled a Bessemer in emitting BTUs. Two blue and white speckled enamel canners occupied two burners; on another a tea kettle maintained a low whistle. On the fourth burner a pan of water boiled.

As Tom Daschel posed questions to men who swore to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, I prepared tomatoes for easy pealing, briefly immersing them in the pan of boiling water. Nixon was in hot water too, and everyone knew him to be a sweating man, even when he sat in the air-conditioned Oval Office, signing his now besmirched name. Had he been in my kitchen the heat would have convinced him he was in hell.

While H.R. Haldeman scalded the truth, I stuffed whole tomatoes into quart Mason jars, which I filled to the top with boiling water from the tea kettle. From a sauce pan resting on the sink drain, I lifted sterilized lids, placed them on the jars with tongs, then screwed on the metal rings. The whole country was getting screwed, I thought.

After placing a newly filled jar in each slot of the two wire racks, I gently lowered the heavy racks into the boiling water bath. Pausing to rest while the stove carried out its responsibilities, I sat at the kitchen table staring at the TV, engrossed in Daniel Inouye’s line of questioning.

The simple life, that was the path my husband, Jim, and I had chosen. Self-sufficiency. A quarter of an acre in tomatoes, corn, green beans, and other vegetables, enough quart boxes in our twenty-cubic foot freezer to feed us until next harvest. Quite an accomplishment for a young woman who’d grown up in the city and a young man whose previous gardening experience had been limited to picking green beans for his mother and reluctantly weeding alongside his father.

In addition to relying on our garden we kept two milking goats and two rabbits. Every spring we bought a hundred baby chicks. Some we kept for eggs; most, though, met their maker and ended up in the freezer alongside the vegetables.

Contrary to what we’d assumed, maintaining a successful garden required more than poking seeds in the ground and waiting for them to mature. We relied on knowledgeable neighbors for advice and read organic gardening magazines, of which some suggested that gardeners keep records of what they’d planted and when. The simple life, we discovered, was more complicated than we’d anticipated.

Life was turning out to be complicated for John Dean, as well, who testified for seven hours one day. But he’d kept records, could tell the senators what Nixon and Haldeman and Ehrlichman had said in his presence. Pulling the weeds of deception out by the roots, he was.

My glasses steamed as I lifted the racks out of the canners. One by one I carried the hot jars to the counter, lining them up on layers of dishtowels, then began the process all over again: dipping whole tomatoes into boiling water, removing their skins, putting on lids, lowering jars into the water bath.

Our garden was a political statement, something young people of the 1960s and 70s did to declare our disdain for the Establishment. We refused to buy into the capitalist dream, shunning the symbols of affluence and power. That summer everything on my little TV supported our decision. The government was corrupt, and the Watergate hearings were proving it.

Still I was shocked when on a July day, while I was stirring a batch of catsup, Alexander Butterfield testified that Nixon recorded conversations and phone calls. So there was evidence that would point to the truth. To make sure I didn’t miss anything I walked away from the pan to stand beside the TV. By the time I returned to the stove the catsup was sticking to the bottom of the pan, scorched, ruined.

Jars on my kitchen counter cooled. Every now and then a lid would ping, a sign that the jar had correctly sealed. Two at a time I carried them down the basement steps into a small dark room lined with shelves. Evidence of Jim’s and my success at being self-sufficient.

“Now I’m just a country lawyer,” Sam Erwin said, obviously shrewd in spite of his self-deprecating words. A country lawyer butting heads with urbane fellows acting as if they were above the law. Stepping away from the stove to cool off, sweeping a strand of wet hair from my face, I pictured Erwin as a young man laboring in a garden not unlike ours.

In 1973 our young bodies were agile. For hours we would bend over a hoe, work on our knees. Dirt caked our hands, got under our fingernails. Had Erwin’s hands once looked the same way? Surely the fingernails of Halderman and Ehrlichman were well manicured, their cuticles not ragged.

When I dropped in bed each night from exhaustion, in those brief moments before I fell asleep, I considered the sleepless nights many in Washington were experiencing, innocent and guilty alike. Senators Howard Baker and Lowell Weiker worrying about how the Republican Party would ever recover. Charles Colson and G. Gordon Liddy becoming aware that they might spend years in prison; Butterfield and Dean fretting about betraying those they’d worked for. Then of course, Nixon himself. He couldn’t be sleeping well.

Why was I so obsessed with watching the Watergate Hearings? In many ways they were like a soap opera, where any minute the plot takes an unexpected turn. At times I imagined I heard background music change tempo, the tune become somber, dramatic. Yet I, like many Americans, sensed that history was being made; that bringing down a president was no light matter; that the country would never be the same.

There was probably a more personal reason, as well. In spite of Jim’s and my goal of self-reliance, of our choosing to isolate ourselves from capitalist society, I recognized that we could never be separate. Just as I had vowed to stay married for better or for worse, I was a part of a country for better or for worse. I was tied to its fate.

A look at my wardrobe in light of Bangladesh building collapse

The lower rod of my closet currently holds forty-two light-weight jackets, sweaters, and blouses. I like choice: dressy, casual, grubby, something for those times when I feel blah, something else if I’m in the mood for pizzazz. Given the popularity of walk-in closets I doubt that my desire for variety is all that rare among middle-class women.

The recent collapse of the clothing factory in Bangladesh has caused me to think about my wardrobe. Employees who earn less than $40 a month (no, I didn’t mistakenly omit any zeros) saw cracks in the structure but were ordered to keep sewing. After all, we American women are anticipating new summer selections. As of April 29, the death count is more than 380. The building collapse, along with a factory fire that killed 112 a few months ago, is putting pressure on big retailers to demand safer conditions and pay higher labor costs.

Maybe the pressure should instead be on me, the consumer. How many tops, how many pairs of jeans, how many pairs of shoes do I really need? In Korea and several European countries, I’ve noticed that what mannequins wear in store windows is expensive by my standards. Yet women still manage to appear smartly dressed. They own fewer but better quality clothes.

It’s largely the American demand for inexpensive clothing and other consumer goods that has sent jobs abroad. We want to earn a living wage, pay little for a lot of stuff, and have jobs stay here. Is that possible?

I’ve considered sewing my own clothes, as I used to do. Too time consuming. I could call a moratorium on purchases altogether. Or I could keep my money in the community by buying what a local person produces, that is have fewer but more distinctive garments.

But the issue isn’t that simple. A few years ago a visitor from Nicaragua wanted me to take her shopping for clothes. She bought dresses made in Central America because it helped employ women there. Columnist Nicholas Kristof, who has traveled extensively in developing countries, writes that for the severely impoverished, a job in a sweatshop would improve their lives (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/15/opinion/15kristof.html ).

I look at pictures of Bangladeshi futilely scratching at concrete to reach loved ones. I dare not conclude that because issues are complex there’s no need to change my consumption habits.