Nov 082012

[cross-posted at Alas, A Blog]

I was supposed to be doing this somewhere warmer, like Las Vegas.

Every election cycle, there are organizations that send out lawyers to act as poll monitors in battleground states, observing the voting process and making sure there are no shenanigans. This time, I let the AAJ’s email blitz talk to me into it. They coordinated with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, which coordinated with other groups in ways that are opaque to me, which ended up with my contact information being handed off to the Obama campaign. After confirming through e-mail how to get in touch with me and that I still wanted to do this, I got a call asking whether I wanted to go to Colorado or Nevada. Either would be fine, I said, but I’m closer to Nevada. They called back again: Reno or Las Vegas? That was a no-brainer.

I went through a brief training on Nevada election law and what to do and not to do (short version: you’re there to help people vote, if anything gets weird, report it to the hotline) and was told in a couple of days I’d get an assignment and be told where to show up on Election Day. In a couple of days, I got a phone call from Election Protection, but it wasn’t about Nevada. It was a tired-sounding woman from the Ohio campaign. She had my name in their database, she said, and she knew it was a really long shot and didn’t expect me to say yes, but was there any chance I might be able to come help out in Ohio? They really needed bodies.

Several phone calls later and after panic and last-minute regrouping from my husband and mother-in-law, who spent most of the last few weeks of the election like this and were convinced Romney was going to steal the election, and I was on a plane to Cleveland.

The training in Ohio was about the same in substance, but a lot more intense: there’d been actual dirty tricks going on, the margin of error was smaller, the ground game more intense. The Secretary of State had been changing rules at the last minute and trying to defy court orders. The training packet was twice as thick as what I’d been given for Las Vegas. We were warned about specific instances of harassment and fraud that had gone on; it was our job, we were reminded over and over, to make sure that everybody got the opportunity to vote if they were registered to do so. Yes, people who said they wanted to vote for Romney. Everybody. Some of this was of course self-serving – we were told that for every Republican voter kept away by voter-suppression efforts, there were three Democratic voters blocked – but there was also a strong sense that however we may have felt about people voting for The Other Side, their right to exercise that choice was more important than whether we agreed with their choice.

On my way back to Akron, where I was to be stationed, I drove through a heavily black neighborhood in Cleveland. The large church I passed on my way to I-77 had a sign out front, the kind where you can change the letters around to inform people of the schedule every week. This one read:



1:00-4:00 DRIVE TO POLLS

The polling site was a middle school in a quiet neighborhood, not far off the highway. I had been told to arrive no later than 6:00 a.m., as polls opened at 6:30. When I pulled up about ten minutes early, the sky was just starting to lighten. I had my bag of shelf-stable things to eat, a bottle of water and a box of Starbucks coffee for the poll workers. (It was traditional for the senior poll observer to bring donuts, we’d been told, as a goodwill gesture, to the point that poll workers were surprised if we didn’t; I assumed that whoever was the precinct captain would handle that, and besides, I had no idea where the nearest decent donut shop was. But it’s never that hard to find a Starbucks.)

My assignment was to be an outside poll observer. In Ohio, to be an inside poll observer – to be actually present in the voting area with the poll workers – one must be a registered Ohio voter, which I am not. My job was to keep an eye on the lines, to make sure no electioneering was going on within a certain distance of the polls, and to assist any voters who were having trouble getting in and getting to vote. I had crammed on Ohio’s voter ID requirements and forms of acceptable ID and my phone had the voter-protection and information hotlines set on Favorites.

It was at or below freezing most of the time, and I periodically had to run inside to warm up or huddle in my car until I could feel my toes again, and lunch was a handful of snacks or canned tuna when I thought the stream of voters had slacked off a bit, and it’s going to be a few days before my lungs stop being mad at me: but it was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever done.

First, the voters. They showed up before the polls opened and never stopped coming. We had a huge influx of people before the sun came up that didn’t slow down until almost 9 am – probably people trying to vote on their way in to work. Many of them were in wheelchairs or on walkers or canes. Many people brought babies or little children. They drove up in work trucks and vans and old cars with plastic taped over missing windows. They waited in lines that, I was told, stretched up to two hours at one point. (I called the inside observer, who made some phone calls; but there’s only so much you can do when an elderly poll worker has to take a bit of time to check names for the right precinct. As one of the roving precinct captains told me, “I hope I move as fast as they do when I’m eighty.”) They held doors for  each other, chatted, let one gentleman on a cane go to the front of the line because he couldn’t stand for very long and wouldn’t have been able to vote if he’d had to wait. They called the voter hotline to find their precinct and drove home to get a utility bill because their ID was expired, and they absolutely wanted to vote.

Every so often a car or a van would pull up to the curb instead of parking. Nine times out of ten, this would be an elderly gentleman dropping off his wife right at the door while he went to park the car. (Did I mention that, with the wind chill, it rarely got above freezing most of the day? And that the parking lot was so cracked and full of misaligned asphalt that it was a trip-and-fall lawsuit waiting to happen?)

Second was being able to help people vote. I didn’t wear any election gear; I didn’t campaign. I greeted people coming in. If they had questions about whether they were in the right precinct, I directed them to the poll workers’ assistance table and offered to call the hotline for them. I explained to confused voters what ID they could use to vote: do you have a cell-phone bill at home, or a utility bill, or a student ID? One woman wasn’t sure and had to leave for work while she was still on hold with the state voter hotline; I called my group, got her precinct and address and texted it to her. (Thank you, she texted back.) I asked voters who didn’t have “I  [Ohio] Voting” stickers on their coats if they were able to cast their ballot; if they said yes, I thanked them for voting, and if not, I tried to find out what the problem was. Sometimes it was just a lack of time, and I could tell them they only needed to be in the line by 7:30 and encourage them to come back. Almost all of them were very friendly. A couple asked me what I was doing there, but they smiled when they realized I was there to help them vote, not to hit them with one more election message.

One man walked out of the polling place, threw back his head and howled “THANK GOD, IT’S OVER!”

Fourteen hours after I arrived, it was indeed over, at least our little piece of it. The poll workers had printed the results from each of the four machines and taped them up on the doors to the school, facing out, where anyone could review them. (Mike, the inside observer, dutifully reported the presidential and senatorial results to the war room; roughly 2-1 in favor of the Democratic candidates, not surprising in a heavily blue-collar and African-American precinct.) We were supposed to wait around until every last paper had been put away, but as Mike said, did we think these nice old ladies were going to go back and sabotage the memory cards? No, we did not. We thanked them for their service and left, in my case to go find dinner that was warmer than room temperature and didn’t come out of a Zip-Seal package. There was a victory party planned somewhere in Cleveland, but a cold beer was absolutely the last thing I needed.

I’ve seen arguments that something is lost when we turn voting into a mail-in affair, and convenient though vote-by-mail is – I do it by default, since I never know if I’ll be home on Election Day – I am now even more convinced that it is true, that setting aside an official day for people to go to a polling place and cast their vote is a kind of civic religion, that there is value in creating a space where people can step into a voting booth, in private, and add their voice to the democratic process of deciding and our leaders and our laws.

I’m humbled and honored that the people of Ohio let me help them exercise their right to make those choices.

Apr 022012

Hard to decide whether the catchphrase for the weekend is “Cool writers everywhere; head spinning” or “Met Joe Lansdale; didn’t die.”

(Joe Lansdale is actually a very friendly and gregarious gentleman. He also once accidentally trashed a hotel room doing martial-arts demonstrations for friends, and on listening to him have a discussion with another con-goer about martial arts, I counted at least four different disciplines he’s studies. Later, on reading a short bio, I came across a mention of a fifth. The man wasn’t bragging, just stating facts.)

This is the first time I’ve really been to a con that focused on the professional and literary aspects of a genre, rather than being primarily a fan hangout. I’m sure there are interpersonal politics and bitchery like everywhere else, but I didn’t see it; everyone was gracious, friendly, and willing to talk about writing and horror without first insuring that I was an Important Person.

It was also very exciting to see Mr. K— get positive feedback on his writing. Why he believes I’d say nice things for no reason, I have no idea, but there is nothing quite like a roomful of strangers telling you ‘cool story, bro’ to make you believe hey, maybe my friends aren’t puffing me up about my writing being good.

And, of course, came home with a metric frackload of books.

Mar 192012

Jessamyn Smith found a subtle, yet very effective, way of dealing with clueless nerd guy making a particular sexist joke.

One of the most interesting, and telling, things about her post was the reaction of some of her co-workers. While some of them thought it was pretty cool, others objected – often in irrational and bizarre ways that had nothing whatsoever to do with the stated objection. (For example, a complaint about the bot’s name being too long, or about “spamming” even though it was a response to a bot that, itself, was “spamming”.)

To me, all of this seems like typical geek behaviour: something is making them uncomfortable, and so they attack it on “rational” grounds. Most likely, they aren’t even aware of the gut reaction fueling their logic.

Spot on. Geeks are not very good at admitting to having irrational emotions, particularly if they are not especially admirable ones, and will construct jaw-droppingly elaborate towers of logicfail in order to prove themselves “right”. Even so, Smith’s constructive criticism made her point elegantly in a way that presented no purchase for sexist flailing. Kudos.

Feb 082012

Following on the heels of David Frum’s excellent takedown of famous crank Charles Murray’s latest book, Andrew Gelman explains why the meme of the rich latte-sipping liberal elites vs. the Pabst-drinking conservative working class is, as with everything else Murray says, utter horseshit.

I would have thought previous takedowns would have ended his 15 minutes, but nobody apparently goes broke catering to the wealthy racist class in America.

Feb 082012

Apropos of the 9th Circuit’s ruling on Proposition 8, rather than raise the same arguments again we can just turn to Ampersand’s analysis of why same-sex marriage won’t make incestuous marriage more likely, particularly his brilliant analysis of why there is a rational basis for prohibiting incestuous marriages between adults:

In my case, I’d first say that marriage is a kin-making institution, which by definition transforms two unrelated (or at least not closely related) people into close kin. It makes no more sense for marriage to turn close kin into close kin than it does for an alchemist to transform gold into gold. It’s already gold.

Second, I’d point out that limiting incestuous marriage to adults would not solve the problem of child abuse, and could conceivably make it worse. Legal recognition of incestuous marriage could give sexually abusive fathers (or mothers — but in most cases, sexually abusive parents are fathers) a strong incentive to sexually abuse their daughters, in hopes of crushing her will before she comes of age, so she’ll agree to marriage.

Finally, I’d argue that child health and child abuse are not the only harms of incest. Importantly, legalizing incestuous marriage between the infertile would transform currently existing families, by introducing the possibility of marriage into relationships that have never had that possibility. It fundamentally changes the relationship between father and son, or between sister and brother, if we add the possibility of marital union to those relationships.

Feb 082012

Over here on Earth-Alpha, you may have heard of today’s big appellate court decision. No, not the one on regular Earth about same-sex marriage; we’ve had that on our parallel timeline pretty much forever. No, in our alternate reality, the Ninth Circuit struck down a law forbidding left-handed people from marrying each other. This law was passed through a popular initiative, to get around the meddling of the courts, and let me tell you, we are not happy about the damage this will cause to our traditional view of marriage.

First was the whole nonsense about “discrimination”, as if left-handers had any different treatment than their right-handed counterparts. A lefty could, if he or she wanted, marry a righty, just as a righty can marry a righty. Tell me, how is that discrimination? Nobody said they couldn’t marry at all; they just want special treatment. (Don’t ask about the “ambidextrous.” They don’t exist; that’s just a phase a lot of people go through until they make up their mind as to whether they’re righties or lefties.)

Then they ignored the fact that left-handedness is not only rare, but something we would like to discourage. Of course many left-handed people can’t help the way they are, but they may be more likely to have left-handed children. And those children will struggle to get along in a right-handed world geared towards right-handed people in everything from pens to circular saws. It’s also well-known that being left-handed increases the risk of everything from ADHD to schizophrenia. Don’t we want to protect our children from the negative effects of sinister marriage?

The court’s decision also spit in the face of millennia of tradition favoring right-handedness. The same word for the majority of people’s hand orientation even means “correct” and “proper” in English. Multiple languages recognize the left side, and left-handedness, as being unlucky or evil – “sinister” in English and “gauche” in French, to pick two easy examples. Many cultures also treat the left hand as unclean or disfavored, useful only for unpleasant tasks. Yet the activist judges in the majority saw fit to set aside a hallowed cultural tradition held by human cultures going back to the dawn of time.

Don’t ask me if the opinion makes any legal sense; we don’t like the result, and that’s all we right-minded folk need to know that the court got it wrong.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go make a donation to a religious charity that helps train left-handed people to hold a pencil in the correct hand; with time and effort, many can write their names legibly, and accept that they should marry a right-handed person, as all right-thinking people do.


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Feb 042012

I know, I know. When somebody online asks for relationship advice it’s often not worth the bother, because of the areas in which people really want an honest answer to their questions, “what should I do about my partner being a complete jackass” is right down there with “does this make me look fat?”

Nonetheless, in the interests of self-help: No, you’re not crazy and yes, s/he is a complete jackass.


Feb 022012

Occasionally, in the course of my work, I find that a defense attorney has been lying or fighting tooth and nail to withhold information that actually would help their client. When I finally pry it out of them – sometimes at judgepoint. Sometimes they do this for billing purposes, but sometimes it’s just…well, stupid. “Why do they do this?!” I will snarl, stomping around my office. (I have very patient co-workers.) And somebody will inevitably remind me that, hey, dumbfuck, they’re defense attorneys. That’s what they do. Withholding information. dodging, never giving a straight answer: those are typical and often very useful strategies, and they do them reflexively, even when it does not serve them or their clients.

I sometimes think that these same people end up running socially conservative activist groups.

Witness the Susan G. Komen Foundation’s recent decision to end funding for Planned Parenthood’s breast-cancer screening program. Their claim, which they continue to maintain, is that this has nothing to do with abortion or contraception, but is simply pursuant to a (brand new) rule that they don’t give grants to groups “under government investigation”. By a startling coincidence, an anti-choice Congressman  has (again) started an investigation as to whether Planned Parenthood spend public money on providing abortions. By an even more startling coincidence, the foundation recently hired as its VP an anti-choice politician who made defunding Planned Parenthood part of her unsuccessful campaign. And Ms. Handel quietly ended the foundation’s support of cancer research (you know, a thing that’s part of its mission) involving embryonic stem cells. Nor has there been any suggestion that the new guidelines have been, or will be, applied to any of the other thousands of organizations receiving grants.

So why is the Komen foundation lying about its reasons for defunding Planned Parenthood?

Because that’s what they do. They can’t help it.

I recall hearing an interview with an anti-choice leader of the movement to pass a “parental notification” initiative in my state, in which they added a little paragraph about life starting at conception. The woman being interviewed was shocked, shocked at the suggestion that said paragraph might be taken as anything other than a legally meaningless statement of purpose: “I’m a lawyer,” she said, and she therefore knew there was no possible way that could bleed out into any other legislation. Which, as anybody who got their JD from an actual law school instead of a cereal box knows, is not only horseshit but is the exact opposite of how laws work.

Or consider when Mark Leno introduced SB-906 in California, which explicitly stated the (existing) rule that religious groups would not be forced to solemnize same-sex marriage. You would think that anti-LGBT groups would embrace it, but unsurprisingly, they did not; because one of their anti-equality talking points is “Your church will be forced to marry gay couples!” and they didn’t want to lose it.

A principled stance would be for the Komen foundation to state that they believe funding Planned Parenthood detracts from their mission of ending breast cancer; or that they believe Planned Parenthood engaged in misconduct; or that they believe abortion and contraception are contrary to the mission of protecting women’s health. But these aren’t principles; they are socially conservative politicians. They can’t help themselves.


Nov 242011

I know I probably should have posted these helpful tips before Thanksgiving, so you would have them before next year, but I have a horrible cold and didn’t make the pie the day before as I usually do. So. I’ll update later in the day with photos and details, but the basics:

  • Make a 3-2-1 pie crust: three parts flour, two parts fat, one part water (by weight). Fat should be butter, but if you’re one of those people who freaks out at working with butter, use a little Crisco or leaf lard if you prefer. The water should be ice cold. Throw in a big pinch of salt and a little sugar. Prebake.
  • Yes, you have to cook the pumpkin instead of using canned. You’re not a bad human being for using canned, but it just won’t taste as good. Get a pie pumpkin half the size of your head and roast it for about an hour at 350F. Cool slightly, get rid of the seedy pulp, and use the meat.
  • Use this recipe.

1 1/2 to 2 cups cooked and cooled pumpkin (more or less depending on how firm and pumpkiny you want your pie), or a large can of canned pumpkin (sigh)

2 eggs

1 1/2 cups half and half

1/4 cup (packed) brown sugar, light or dark, your choice, but I use light

1/2 cup regular white sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 teaspooon ground ginger

1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1/4 teaspoon ground allspice

Preheat your oven to 400F.

Blend the pumpkin in a food processor or blender. If your machine can hold everything, put in a cup of the half-and-half and everything else and blend until smooth, then add the rest of the half-and-half. If you don’t, or if you have canned pumpkin, just beat everything together in a bowl. Pour into your prebaked pie crust and cook for 15 minutes (it’s probably a good idea to put pie strips or foil over the pie crust edge, by the way). Turn your oven down to 350F and bake for 25-35 minutes, until the center of the pie is just barely still jiggly. Take it out and cool it well away from little helpers: