Catching the Bus for Election Reform

What would induce me, a 45-year-old woman, to spend two nights sleeping on a bus, with 11 hours of standing around in wind, rain, and sleet sandwiched between? The same cause inspired more than 50 other Maine people as well—teachers, teenagers, artists, college students, retired folks, mothers, fathers, fishermen, a former Peace Corps trainer, a librarian, a poet, a doctor, a state representative—to travel to Washington, D.C. in the VoterMarch bus organized by Barbara Skapa of Vienna and Jo Ann Campbell Simon of Camden. Along with the 23-hour bus ride, we shared a determination to voice our protests over the manner in which the result of the presidential election was decided.

If you watched the inauguration of George W. Bush as our 43rd president on television or read the coverage in the papers, you may not realize the extent, volume, and variety of the protests that concurrently took place. Our busload was a microcosm of the estimated 20,000 people who showed up to stand up for voting rights and fair elections. Many of us were first-time protestors, most are political moderates, but all of us have a deep love for our country and its principles of democracy, which have been an inspiration to freedom-lovers worldwide for two-and-a-quarter centuries.

After the 2000 presidential election outcome was summarily decided by the five justices of the Supreme Court, I felt concerned that a dangerous precedent had been set. The man who won the popular vote by garnering more than half a million votes beyond his opponent’s number—who won the most votes in America’s history, except for Ronald Reagan’s re-election—did not win the presidency. In addition, documented voting irregularities in Florida led to substantial questions about the apportionment of the Electoral College votes. Yet it seemed clear that the politicians and the media were willing to sweep these anomalies out of sight and pretend that the election had been democratically concluded.

As Maine voters, it is hard for us to imagine that people in other parts of the United States don’t always experience democracy in the straightforward way we do here. We can register at the polls when we go in to vote on Election Day. We have candidates who run their campaigns under the Maine Clean Election standards. Our Electoral College votes are apportioned according to the outcome of our popular vote. Often, we even know the people who are counting the ballots late into the night after the polls close. We trust the system.

Unfortunately, our experience is not universal. My niece, who moved to Tampa, Florida, in September, registered to vote soon after moving to her new home. But when she appeared at the polls on Election Day, she was not listed as an eligible voter. After standing in various lines for several hours, she was told that there was no record that she had ever registered and she would not be allowed to cast a vote. A bureaucratic snafu? Perhaps. But as we now know, such individual problems added up to a critical mass weighty enough to shift an election.

On Saturday, in Washington, our busload of protestors arrived at Dupont Circle at about 7:00 in the morning. By 9:30, a huge crowd of people had joined us. The rally was organized by VoterMarch, a group calling for election reform. People had come from all over the country—Washington, California, Florida, Georgia, and many states in between. Ages ranged from babies in strollers to gray-haired seniors. Although obviously upset about the way the election was terminated, the group was friendly and good-humored. Most people carried home-made protest signs, some of which were quite witty. Street-theater groups performed skits: a group of “Caribou” begged us to leave the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge alone; another group dressed in top hats and tails who billed themselves as the “Billionaires for Bush” sang satirically of their gratitude for the election results. A variety of speakers inspired the crowd, including a voting official from Miami-Dade County, and Granny D., the remarkable 91-year-old New Hampshire woman who walked across the country last year to support campaign finance reform.

VoterMarch and other groups had been given a number of permits allowing them to stage demonstrations in various sites. Several thousand protestors left DuPont Circle to march to another location. Stopped by police enroute who prevented them from reaching their permitted destination, a minor skirmish ensued. But, as a whole, the relations between law enforcement and protestors were quite respectful and sometimes downright cordial.

Just before noon, five of us decided to make our way from DuPont Circle to the parade route to see what was happening there, instead of attending another rally scheduled to occur on the Ellipse. After skirting several detours, we finally arrived at Pennsylvania Avenue not far from the White House. Once we passed through the police checkpoint (backpacks and bags were searched and some of us were frisked), we could walk along the parade route. Helicopters hovered overhead. Sharpshooters lined the roofs of nearby buildings, ominously silhouetted against the sky. Police were stationed every eight feet on each side of the street, facing the crowds, with marines in khaki uniforms interspersed among them. A phalanx of mounted police stood at attention.

The military order of the police ranks contrasted sharply with the chaos of the crowds. We were astonished to find that, at least within the stretch of the parade route that we walked along, Bush supporters were in little evidence. The official bleachers, for which attendees needed tickets, were sparsely filled. Some of those seated held protest signs. On the ground, the sidewalks were thronged with ad hoc protestors packed together like rush-hour subway riders. Many people held signs. Waves of chanting rolled up and down the line. “What do we want? DEMOCRACY! When do we want it? NOW!” The atmosphere was one part carnival, one part serious civil action. A sense of camaraderie filled the air as these citizens, hopping up and down to stay warm, traded stories of how they decided to join the protest. The vast majority had no affiliation to a particular group—they simply felt a need to vent their frustration at a system gone awry.

One young woman, a law-student from Washington, told me that she was a Republican who voted for Bush. But she wasn’t angry to see all the demonstrators. “I guess I agree with them to some extent,” she said. “If Gore had won by those means, I would be very upset.”

I thought of all the people at home who had expressed support when I told them that I was heading to Washington. I had been bowled over by their fervor. A neighbor baked me a batch of cookies to bring on the bus. A Republican friend confessed that she was ashamed of the way the election was concluded. People who had heard about my plans from mutual friends called to thank me for going. Many said they wished that they too could be there. All seemed to feel betrayed by the process, and concerned about what its outcome means for the future.

The new president’s motorcade rushed by my section of the parade route at about 4:00 in the afternoon. An incredible din of booing and jeering from the crowds lining the route preceded it. A platoon of secret service motorcycles flanked several limousines with darkly tinted windows. I couldn’t tell which car held my new president, though I think I caught a glimpse of Vice President Cheney’s face. As the motorcade passed, people around me chanted, “Shame! Shame! Shame!” at the speeding cars. We energetically waved our protest signs. No matter how thick the bulletproof glass, the president and his coterie must have heard the blast of the crowds’ disapproval.

My new friends and I walked back to the subway with hundreds of strangers carrying similar signs. Though cold, hungry, and soaked to the bone, everyone seemed cheerful, as though something of significance had been accomplished and we had played a part in its success.

After returning home early Sunday morning, I continue to feel buoyed by the experience. It was wonderful to know that 20,000 other people shared my anxiety about our country’s future and were moved to do something about that anxiety. But I know this optimism may be short-lived. Why isn’t everyone upset about the way this election was conducted? Don’t they believe that the right to vote and have that vote counted is the very foundation of democracy? Democracy is by its very nature a participatory process. No one who cares about our country should be able to resist the call for election reform.


[© Barbara Burt; unpublished]

The News from Maine for Summer Folks

As I drove home this afternoon along Route One between Brunswick and Newcastle in my mud-splashed car, I thought about those of you who descend upon our town in August, confiding to each other how you adore Maine.

What would you think if you saw us now, I wonder. For five days in a row I have worn the same outfit: black knit pants and a gray knit sweater. A perfect expression of the way I feel right now, the sweater is the same color as the concrete-like snow banks that line the lumpy road. It’s the same gray as the clouds bearing down on the horizon. It matches the Damariscotta River reflecting that sky. The shape of my sweater is as unspecific and secretive as the snow that has buried the stone wall in my yard.

Come summer, I may resent your oversized SUVs—here we tend to drive Subaru wagons or pickups—but I will appreciate your fresh faces and your appetite for blueberries and corn. I will welcome you. Now, in an April that seems more like late February, I dream of your arrival. For those of you whom I count as friends, I imagine hosting a magical evening twinkling with witty conversation as we sit in wooden chairs in the firefly-lit grass or lean against the slumbering rocks on the shore under stars. You’ll carry news, and new ways of thinking. And you’ll bring to me an excuse for laughing, for drinking gin and tonics and cracking open lobsters on a dock. For you I will rip the bilious blue plastic off that bulbous mound of white fiberglass that balances on its toe in my yard, and set it afloat.

Yesterday I was visited by an explosion of color. A flock of goldfinches, twenty or more, invaded the birdfeeder by the dining room window. As I read the newspaper, a flash of yellow caused me to look out at the landscape I had long since lost interest in. Do me a favor. Wear a tee-shirt that shade of yellow when you come, will you?


[© Barbara Burt. Unpublished]

Five tactics for boating with a newbie

If you’ve been boating for years, chances are you’ve forgotten what it feels like to be a newcomer setting a tentative foot on a rocking platform on the water. Yet, at some point, you are likely to find yourself inviting a non-boater to come aboard. Perhaps it’s your mother-in- law, or your daughter’s boyfriend, or that nice person you met at the market.

We happen to be sailors, so much of what I say below is written from the standpoint of an owner of a wind-driven vessel.

However, many of my suggestions will apply to the treatment of guests on powerboats, too. Power or sail, there’s more to worry about than what kind of soles are on your guest’s shoes. To ensure that both of you have a good time, here are five things to keep in mind as you prepare to leave the dock.

1. A non-boater may have no idea how things work on a sailboat or a powerboat, so explain. This was illustrated to my husband, Rick, and me on our Cape Dory 33, Ara, when we invited some acquaintances from my organization’s headquarters to go for a sail. Ben, a handsome, tall, brilliant policy analyst, asked how he could help so I passed him a jib sheet. I soon was shocked to find him pushing on the sheet. Yes, pushing instead of pulling.

Ok, that’s an extreme case. But you can’t assume any knowledge if your passenger admits to having no experience. Give him or her a simple explanation of how the wind passes through the slot between the sails and thus powers the boat. Let him know that when the wind pushes on the sails, the boat will tilt. Lead him on a quick tour of your craft, which brings me to the second point.

2. Speak English first, then translate. Don’t start the trip by asking your guest to stow her ditty bag on the starboard settee in the saloon. Yes, you are bilingual, but remember, she is not. Make sure your friend knows what you’re saying.

Then, if she seems interested, teach her a few of the more useful words, especially words that may come up as you sail: port, starboard, bow, stern, jib, main, mast, boom, buoy, halyard, sheet, leeward, windward, heel, tack, jibe, etc. Don’t overwhelm her; let her ask for more rather than forcing it. And here’s an added benefit: Teaching sailing vocabulary can turn into a game that will carry the conversation if you run out of things to chat about.

Oh, and be sure to explain about the keel. Tell your friend how heavy it is. And when the boat is “tilting” wildly, remind her that the keel will keep the boat from capsizing (unless you’re sailing in a Sunfish or a Laser or something made for capsizing).

3. Go for safety, not style points. When I was 17 and already madly in love with Rick, he gave me a heavy green ex-Army jacket, which I wore everywhere, including on the Lightning on which I crewed every Sunday at the Winnepesaukee Yacht Club in Gilford, N.H. During one gusty race, I was swept overboard by the boom as we made a surprise jibe. I almost drowned trying to swim with that jacket on. In hindsight (about 20 years later), I realized how foolish that was.

So, today, if I think a guest should wear a PFD, I don one first and offer another to him. If it’s not safe to go up on the deck, I say, “Stay in the cockpit and talk to me.” Be firm; some people don’t like to admit that there could be danger or that they might be frightened.

There’s an old family tale about my father racing in our Lightning with my Great-Uncle Henry, who must have been in his late-70s at the time and considered himself an Old Salt. Uncle Henry would never be caught dead wearing a PFD, but he was almost caught dead without one. They were running downwind, the spinnaker fouled, and Uncle Henry went forward to unwrap it. A big puff hit, and Uncle Henry was whisked right off the bow. (He did survive, only slightly the worse for wear.)

You’re the captain: You must explain that on a boat the captain’s word is law. Say it nicely, but say it firmly. Even if this is your boss you’re talking to, or your girlfriend’s husky older brother, be clear.

4. Put comfort at the top of the list. That other sailboat that you’re trying to catch? Your guest won’t think less of you for letting them get away, especially if it means you’ll relax, stop sailing so close to windward, and keep your boat sailing on its bottom and throwing up less spray. You and I may not mind heeling at 35 degrees, but chances are a newbie will be scared witless. Even if you’ve explained about your weighty keel, she’ll still be full of dread. Go ahead, reef the sails, spill some wind, take it easy. The point is not to instill a lifelong fear of boating.

And watch the wind, the sun, the temperature. Bring up a boat cushion or two. Offer a fleece or a hat. Serve a snack. Which reminds me….

5. Stop seasickness before it becomes a problem. Is your guest suddenly quiet and pale? Yawning? Bring out the crackers. Pour a glass of ginger beer or offer a bit of crystallized ginger candy. No one knows if he’s prone to seasickness until he goes to sea. But certain things can contribute to seasickness. Anxiety, for one. That’s another reason why you don’t need to put your vessel on her side during this cruise.

An empty stomach, for another. Maybe you were planning to break out the snacks on the downwind leg. But if your passenger is already feeling woozy amid tacks to windward, give him a couple of crackers to settle his stomach. Explain that sometimes it just takes awhile to get used to the motion of the boat, and encourage him to stand, look around, and make himself at home. Some people, my daughter included, swear by wristbands. Encourage a newbie to wear them if he’s never been sailing. They’ll act as a placebo if nothing else. In a more extreme case, or with someone who admits to having been seasick before, drugs can be effective, but they have to be taken ahead of time. Seasickness is something to avoid, for it can ruin the trip for everyone.

If you follow these tips and pay attention to your guest’s needs, you’ll be inducting a new person into the worldwide club of people who are at least mildly fond of boating. Did someone, once, long ago, introduce you to the joys of being on the water? Here’s your chance to “pay it forward,” as the saying goes.

Barbara Burt and her husband, Rick, recently acquired Lark, a Nordic 40, which they sailed from Annapolis to Maine last June. They look forward to sailing out of Rockland this summer with friends of all levels of experience. (This article appeared in the July 2011 issue of Points East Magazine.)