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A Cure for Writer's Block

"A richer people could give more, but they could never give as much." -Flavor text from a Magic The Gathering™ card

Tomorrow, I'll probably quit my job that I started today. At least I plan to. Friday, on an unemployment special mid-workday run, I pulled up a tab off a flyer on a phone pole for some kind of grassroots campaigning gig. I called them at 1 in the afternoon. I interviewed at 4 that same afternoon. I started Monday morning, and now, on Monday night, I have decided to quit.

Quitting this job is a luxury I cannot afford. But I'm not just quitting this job; I am quitting on principle. That is a solid gold bidet at Versailles with single-cut diamond taps and that runs aged cognac. And in part, one of the principles that caused me to luxuryquit out of my means was that this job was causing me to contribute to the culture where activism, or doing anything else on principle, is a luxury. Which gives me a nice, hermetically sealed, full-circle(jerk) way to justify leaving. (Wow, two paragraphs in after my return from the Wilderness and I'm already packing in the cock jokes. And I think I just made another.)

The cause. It's a great cause. Let me tell you about how shit is fucked up in our great state of California. Let me phrase that better, since my parents or pastor or impressionable youths might be reading. There are some major issues in the battle for California's future, and one of them is how we're going to handle what forests we have left. I can tell you these facts because I was spitting them out all day to disinterested passersby who were just trying to get their damn kids to soccer practice so they could go home, close the blinds, and read 50 Shades of Gray while eating something vaguely resembling chocolate, or something Greek yogurt-based, in their brief 90 minutes of respite from those little fleshy bags which preserve their DNA at the cost of a ruined 18 years. Here's the deal: we're going to lose over a million acres of forest in the Sierra foothills in the next few years. 65,000 acres get chopped down every year, and then the logging companies, just to add the Mr. Burns finishing kick, spray the ground with arsenic and a cocktail of up to 300 other noxious chemicals, none of which are regulated by the state. Since 80% of our drinking water comes from forested watersheds, this is bad news for everything in the state that needs water, like crops, endangered herons, humpback whales named Humphrey that for some reason swim a hundred kilometers up the Sacramento River, and oh yeah, people.

But you might say we need to replace forests with apocalyptic wastelands and put cancer in our drinking water for the economy! Because jobs! Because, you know, all those loggers are going to be out of work and there will be no building materials to build job-creating infrastructure. Environmentalists are killing progress and it's all Obama's fault, or something like that. The truth is, you can log without clear cutting. It just doesn't give you a big yield right away. Instead, you have to manage your resources so you have both a steady stream of lumber coming to market and enough living trees to keep that stream going. You have to be responsible, budgeting your forest. Investors prefer clear cutting because it provides a quick and dirty return on their investments.

These are real issues, issues which, admittedly, I didn't know about until Friday afternoon. But now that I know, I'm using the only means I have to really do good, writing about it. Because it's out of my hands. It was even out of my hands when I was working for the people trying to stop it.

It's coming down to a lobbying battle. I was standing out in front of a Whole Foods with a Sierra Club shirt on going up to people who conveniently developed a trendy gluten allergy sometime in the last few years, and these people just wanted to sign something. They see a clipboard and a pen and hear me talking about one of the millions of awful things in the world and ask "where do I sign?" Well shit, I don't have anything for you to sign, my superiors just need your damn money. Because the timber industry has its tentacles going deep into the lobbying scene. Since their money comes from commercial ventures and investors, who have incentive for it to succeed, they are going to get however much money they need. The Sierra Club needs to get members to contribute so they can get money to hold their own in this battle. And they will always need more money.

So this is where I come in. The agency I work(ed) for is not actually the Sierra Club, but an organization called Grassroots Campaigns. Basically, they're a progressive gun for hire fundraising institution, contracted by various organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center, Oxfam, the ACLU, and of course, the Sierra Club. I'm no economist so I don't know whether or not this cuts costs or ads in overhead. Maybe if I were an economist I would reason that if they're doing something, it has to be saving them money, because in the Economist's Dimension, all decisions are made based solely on financial gain. However, I'm not sure if contracting Grassroots Campaigns to do some of their fundraising was the most cost-effective way to do things. Canvassers are paid eight dollars an hour with commission past a certain amount of money raised. This is going to make you pushy. This will make sure you shake everyone by the ankles. And if, in a week, you average canvassing less than $140 per day, then you don't keep your job. This practically makes you mug people for charitable donations.

I spent my first morning getting the rap down, a set of talking points which, although it only takes a minute to recite on rapid fire, is far too cumbersome to give to a bystander who wants to get out of there. Most of the facts pertaining to the issues I have already given, but far more eloquently. Of course, there's also the stuff about "GIVE US MONEY ON A MONTHLY BASIS OTHERWISE YOU'RE BASICALLY PUNCHING A BABY OWL IN THE DICK!" and how you can do it monthly with a credit card to make it easier for the Sierra Club to budget for a long-term Western Front style lobbying battle. (I often wonder if our Lost Generation will be one lost to apathy.)

After a good old fashion grassroots organization let's all get energized meeting, we break into groups to go to canvassing locations. My group was going to the most far-flung location. At least I get to see the world in this limited sort of way. We piled into a rental car with two canvassers for the SPLC who were going to a nearby location. There's another piece of overhead. To get to some of these spots at the periphery of the Bay Area, Grassroots Campaigns has to use rental cars. More getting billed to the Sierra Club.

They listened to top 40 radio. Top 40 radio is a way to identify when people don't really care about music, they just like having it on in the background. They'll like what is convenient to like. Ian, a kid from East Oakland who would be canvassing for the SPLC said he had done some research on them and found that about 60% of what they raise goes to the top of the organization and the rest goes to the actual fighting for causes like taking down hate groups. But all he had to say about it was that it "seemed kinda sketchy." I found myself wishing I could compartmentalize my mind like that, do my job without thinking about how it's all connected, where I fit in the machine. We need someone to fight those hate groups but should it really be people so corrupt? It's hard to find the greater good when nobody is doing it.

Getting farther from the Bay Area's population core now, we lost the top 40 station and someone started flipping through stations until he settled on some kind of 20th century synthpop. "Hahaha, this is so Eighties man!" he said. I need to find a way to bottle the 80's aesthetic and sell it as a tincture in organic stores. I would make a killing.

We set up in front of a whole foods. Two of us flanked the sides and the third covered a park across the street. I got about 15 minutes of observing my supervisor canvassing, and then we switched roles and he watched me. Then he cut me loose and I was alone in the mighty Whole Foodsian jungle. In the next hour and a half I was able to get one donation from a guy who said that he studied marketing psychology and that my tricks would not work on him. (My "tricks" were limited to shaking his hand and telling him my name.) He handed me a 20 and told me to go away.

Now people are supposed to fill out forms with their names and addresses, and we prefer credit cards over cash, probably for purposes of corruption. (First off, nobody trusts you with their credit card information, even if we don't need the security code on the back. We write down the information but we do make a rubbing of the embossed numbers on carbon paper using a coin, but who has time to sit around doing that?) One really strange thing we needed was, from those paying with a check, a second check left blank except for the word "void" written on it. This did not sit well with the one person who gave me a check. Since it was a struggle to get the first check out of her I let her off the hook.

I talked to some people who had been members of the Sierra Club for a long time. Since I was out there for a 3rd party contracted by the Sierra Club, I really had nothing to say to him. I knew nothing about what else the Sierra Club has been up to. I couldn't even tell people what their membership would get them other than a good feeling and junk mail. But these lifelong members, they thought I was awesome. I didn't want to tell them the truth because being told I was awesome already made me feel awful inside. One woman even said "I bet your parents are really proud of you." She thought I was doing a good thing out of passion for the cause. But I was just a lousy progressive gun-for-hire. I know that the reason for feeling awful was because of a discrepancy in how I was perceived and in what was actually going on, and that if I told them it might actually make me feel better. But I just nodded and smiled. I can be a bit of a sadist. Sometimes I would just take the cop-out of "it's my first day." There are so many things that need your attention now, but all they ask for is your money. We've got government espionage, civil wars across the globe, racially motivated violence, and now even my hooded sweatshirt has become political by appropriation! And here I am trying to get you to cough up more than a few bucks to save some conifers! There are awesome people out there, doing awesome things that will make a difference, and I am not one of them. Do not inflate me.

And then the euphoria of not caring came over me. I was a zen monk (not the trendy fake American kind but the real deal) and beheld a sizable chunk of causality in an instant, seeing myself standing in a whole foods parking lot as the logical conclusion of my car breaking down all those years ago, a time trial in American flag running shorts, recycled emotions slapped onto a blank CD, singing Billy Joel in an MRI machine, a late-night phone call to make me useful again and a chance meeting the next day when all I wanted was to be useless, discovering my beard had turned black in a Wendy's restroom, a promise to myself I knew I would break, Flagstaff hailstones the size of golf balls, a spilled Jamba Juice, a concussion on the floor of a blood bank, being stuck one too many times in LA traffic, a few too many empty bottles of Trader Joe's wine, a broken window, the weight of all my blown opportunities, and a road trip to Long Beach which would end up taking me as far as Boston, all coming together like history in the mind of a delusional Saleem Sinai preparing for his birth, all an unbroken chain of accidents and artifacts bringing me to this very whole foods for this very purpose, telling me this was no fault but my own and the only way to break the cycle of the birth and death of my aspirations was to abandon whatever passivity-borne-of-confusion had left me so incapable of transcending my own mediocrity. I used to feel like there was some kind of manual to life that everyone but me had received, but in this moment, it becomes clear that there is no way there could be a manual for all this, for all I've done and seen, and for all the people I've met along the way. It's all just choices in a the wilderness and I was going to have to make one. I think it was around then I decided if i really objected, on principle, to what I was doing, then I would have to do something about it myself.

On the ride back I talked with the other canvassers about how to distinguish who is going to give you money and who is a waste of your time. Sometimes people want to talk about the issues but aren't in a position to give money. We are supposed to get them out of there as quickly as possible, to get money from people who can afford to care more. They told me soon I would undergo a session of "Awareness Training," which would help me better identify who would be willing to give. Isn't the purpose of a "grassroots" campaign to build a broad base of support to the point where it incites a mass movement? All this does is raise money that will get poured into the Sacramento entertainment industry as lobbyists take state senators for a night of schmoozing on the town. It's putting the people who already have the power (and the money) in a position of more power.

During my "debriefing" I brought up how I felt really conflicted about shaking people down for money this way to support a lobbying battle. Notice that I didn't say I felt bad, I just felt really conflicted. This is an issue that needs to be addressed, and unfortunately, lobbying is how these things get done now. My super told me I can't think of it that way. The antecedent to "that" was not the conflict about structural flaws in the ways we make changes to the structural flaws in the macro-structure. I didn't tell him that much. I just told him I was conflicted about asking people for money. He then went on to tell me that I just have to think of what I'm doing as the 100% right thing to do.

And I certainly didn't. The first thing I thought when I walked out was "shit, I need to go do something that does some real good in the world to absolve myself for what I've been doing today." And then I realized that's not what your'e supposed to be thinking after a day of working for a grassroots organization to protect the majestic splendor and beautifully complex system that is God's Spaceship Earth. You're supposed to see all the corporate sellouts, the people splurging on needlessly frothy coffee, and all the conpsicuous consumption around you, and feel like you've done a truly good thing while everyone else keeps their head down.

Whatever other work I end up finding will probably be something where I do nothing for the common good, except maybe help people which brand of toothpaste to buy. I won't be doing the right thing, but at least I won't be doing something that keeps the wrong thing going on.

All I can say for now is try to be one of those passionate people. Follow the news, do research, make your own opinions. Drink chocolate milk if your stomach can handle it. Drive with the windows down, wear silly hats, grow your own food. Vote no matter how long the lines are, give people rides, take the bus, tell your friends to take the bus. Read books that aren't on a screen and reuse all your things until they fall apart. Remember that nothing has to be the way it is (except for things like the laws of physics because we can't change those) and make some fucking eye contact with each other for once! Say hungry. Say free. And dammit, do the best you can. Because that's all I can ask of anybody.

Sorry to break the mood with a shameless plug, but you should really consider following the Ozone Shack on twitter.


Unknown said...

Nice shtuff. I think everyone should canvass once in their lives - weird, degrading, disillusioning experience.

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