Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Breaking the silence

Date: Nov. 3 and 4
Mileage: 35.1 and 62.0
November mileage: 156.9

Sunlight poured in through the window as the dentist hovered over me with a miniature sandblaster. He wore a sticker that read "I ensured freedom by voting today." It was still only 9 a.m. As he ground away 15-year-old retainer glue, the whine of the drill competed with the yammering of high-volume news radio for nobody's attention.

"Wow, it's a nice day today," my dentist said.

"Hmmm mmmm," I gurgled.

Outside, people on the corner waved campaign signs. The streets were full of noise, honking and traffic, yelling and whistling. "Can I really handle a full day of this?" I wondered. I parked at a nearby mall and pulled my bike off the roof rack. I suited up in clothing that would assure me warmth - something that's been eluding me on bike rides lately - two fleece jackets, long johns, rain pants, balaclava, neoprene booties. I pulled into traffic and rode north.

Beyond the businesses and polling places, beyond the houses and the campaign signs, the street became starkly quiet. Despite the nice weather, no one seemed to be venturing out the road - minds and hearts elsewhere, I guess. I relished in the solitude, in a place where rushing streams and soft wind drown out the constant yammering. But without the noise, I began to wonder why I had been so annoyed.

Political passion has eluded me for years. I registered to vote soon after I turned 18, and happily voted for Sandy City Council members in the 1997 election. I came back in '98 for my first statewide ballot. I campaigned fiercely for future Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson in '99, going so far as to wave a sign on a street corner. I joined a number of environmental activism groups, volunteered for university voter drives, and went with Nader in 2000. But shortly after I graduated from college, something snapped. My passion faded. I began to view voting as a statistical exercise in futility. I began to hear campaigns as meaningless rhetoric. I began to see major-party candidates as small variations of the same ideas. I became a political agnostic. I haven't voted in an election, any election, since 2002.

There was comfort in my apathy, safety in doing nothing. I never tried to defend my status as a non-voter, but I never did anything about it, either. I started to feel guilty in 2006, but failed to register before the deadline. I watched the results diligently and concluded my vote would have made no difference. I did not rush off to register after the election. I still hadn't registered by the 2008 primary. I did not register to vote until the first week of October, on the last day before the deadline, because I knew, despite my agnosticism, refusing to vote would only secure my place in purgatory.

The beautiful day kept me out on my bike until it was time to go to work. I did not have time to stop by my polling place first. I sat at my desk and tuned back in to the yammering, because that's what I'm paid to pay attention to. Bursts of excitement punctuated the air at the office, with all eyes on the election. By 6 p.m. Alaska time, major news networks were already starting to call the race. National reaction poured in. I browsed the Associated Press wire, looking for photos to include with the stories. The faces, the tears, the words captured my spirit in a way I haven't felt for eight years. Especially powerful was this photo, with Christine King Farris, sister of Martin Luther King Jr., and her granddaughter in Atlanta:

I took my break shortly before polls closed, went to the Douglas Public Library, and voted.