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Falling Skies, and The Mandalorian


As you can see, it usually takes me a while to get around to watching things. “The Mandalorian” just started its second season. “Falling Skies” premiered in 2011 and ran for five seasons. Some people seem to stay up to date on what’s being released, and they watch things when they’re new. I can’t imagine how they do their research on new releases and where to stream what. If there’s a one-stop source for this information, I’ve never been able to find it. I’m aware of web sites such as The Decider, but 99 percent of it is the sort of thing that I never watch — here-and-now stuff, suburban stuff, brainless sitcoms, zombie stuff, teen romance, and all that.

I knew about “The Mandalorian” when it was new. But I didn’t sign up for Disney+ until recently, partly because it was hard to justify yet another streaming service, and partly because Baby Yoda was so cutesie that I thought the series was aimed at the 12 and under set. But I was wrong about that. I watched the first episode of the first season of “The Mandalorian” last night, and it was a very enjoyable return to the Star Wars world, which I think is the greatest cinematic saga of our lives.

Still, Baby Yoda does seem a bit cutesie. But otherwise it’s a beautifully produced trip back into the Star Wars world. Good writing and good production (including good audio production) does, after all, make a huge difference in watchability and our willingness to suspend disbelief, as the first six or seven seasons of Game of Thrones showed. I’m always grateful for good audio production in which we actually can hear and understand the dialogue. In “The Mandalorian,” a diminuendo in the music often precedes the dialogue. Noisy soundtracks with dialogue submerged in roaring background sounds and dreadful music have stopped me from watching a good many movies and series. After all, it’s the writing that makes a good story, and dialogue is critical. I found “The Expanse” impossible to follow because its soundtrack was deafening and incomprehensible.

“Falling Skies” is an alien invasion post-apocalyptic series. Though I’d probably give it only a B, it’s good enough that I’ve watched the first season. Steven Spielberg was an executive producer. I detect his influence in the series’ emphasis on family, as opposed to the usual same-old same-old emphasis on romance. Much can be done with plots about groups of people banding together and facing extreme threats. I’d give “Battlestar Galactica” an A+ for that. “Falling Skies” is no “Battlestar Galactica,” but it’s comfortably above what I call the threshold of watchability. “Falling Skies” is on HBO Max.

Village-building



Whether we approve or not, Amazon is now important for rural people, just as the Sears catalog was many years ago. We recently put up new signs to help keep the Amazon trucks from getting lost.


I usually think of myself as a hermit, hiding down in the forest, ruled by a bossy, devoted, and needy cat. But when I think back on the eleven years I have lived here in the woods, it’s remarkable how much social work I have done, just because I looked around this little, red, poor, beautiful, unspoiled, undiscovered county in the Appalachian foothills and saw how much social work needed to be done. It also is remarkable how much help, and how many allies, I have had.

Stephen Sondheim:

You move just a finger,
Say the slightest word,
Something’s bound to linger,
Be heard.
No one acts alone.
Careful, no one is alone.

At first it was just me, transplanted (from San Francisco), disoriented, culture-shocked, with an overwhelming amount of work to be done to make a home where there was nothing but woods. I lived in a camping trailer for a year while building the house, and as soon as the trailer had all the hookups necessary to provide for myself and a cat, Lily the cat came to live with me. About a year later, Ken appeared. (I had emailed him after reading his beautiful viral piece in Salon about living in his van while in graduate school at Duke University.) The energy — literary and otherwise — that Ken brought to the project as he lived here on and off for the next 10 years made a huge difference.

For some context and perspective, I recommend the piece that Ken wrote earlier this year for the Wigtown Book Festival, Letter From the Heartland. Also note the satellite photo below, which shows the little village-in-the-woods in which I live, with the abbey’s piece of the woods marked with red.

I first heard Stokes County’s cry for help in 2012. Republicans had taken over the North Carolina legislature, and they naturally thought that sacrificing a couple of rural counties for fracking was a beautiful idea, since fracking had done such wonders in poisoning the people of Pennsylvania. Before my time here, there had been a previous environmental emergency in the county when a chip plant was proposed, the object of which, I assume, was to take our trees and turn them into fuel and building products, polluting in the process and overloading our winding roads with heavy trucks. Some veterans of that fight (which they won), quickly got an organization called No Fracking in Stokes up and running. I am proud to say that I joined that effort early on. Not only have we not been fracked, the organization was so effective that it became quite prominent in the anti-fracking movement.

For better or for worse, I was soon recruited for the executive committee of the Stokes County Democratic Party. Then I was elected county chair. I was in that position for almost six years, until I resigned recently for reasons that aren’t worth going into. The 2020 election was exhausting, and I hope it will be my last election as a local political operative. At the county level, we lost, big (not that we expected anything else). Trump won this county with 78 percent of the vote, so there is a lot of work to be done. In the future I hope to work much closer to home. But there was much to be gained from six years as county chair: I got to know lots of people, and I learned a lot about this county, including things that some people didn’t want me to know.

If I were filthy rich, I’d have the means to do what the filthy rich do to buy seclusion and security. I’d buy hundreds or thousands of acres and put a fence around it. But because I’m not filthy rich, and because my holdings in land are small, I depend on my neighbors for buffer and for security. That’s one reason why village-building is so important (and always has been): Mutual security, and a sharing of skills, tools, and infrastructure.

I can take credit for only a portion of the village-building that is happening here in this neck of the woods. Most of the credit goes to the man whom Ken calls Ron in Ken’s article for Wigtown. Just as Ron doesn’t fully understand why I’m a liberal, I don’t fully understand why a man with his intelligence, social skill, and generosity is a Republican. But we don’t waste time on national wedge issues, because we have plenty of work to do here in the woods.

For example, my tiller had died, and a $90 visit to a small engine shop failed to fix it. Ron suggested that I buy a new carburetor (a mere $14 from Amazon). Yesterday Ron installed the carburetor for me while I handed him tools. Now the tiller runs like new. He has helped with so many projects here that I wouldn’t be able to list them all. I do my best to return the favor with things that I know how to do, such as programming his (and the neighbors’) radios and giving advice on appropriate antennas and how to install them. They heat with wood, so when there’s firewood to be split and stacked, I can help.

Ken has written quite a lot about private property (This Land Is Our Land) and how much he hates no-trespassing signs. There are far too many no-trespassing signs down in these woods. But I’m pleased to say that many of the signs, and much of the purple paint, is fading as a more village-oriented attitude takes root. Ken and I realized long ago that reforming the neighbors’ attitudes on property would be a longterm project to be handled tactfully. I’m pleased to say, though, that the woods are increasingly being treated as a commons, as they ought to be. When a tree goes down in a storm, the question is not whose land it’s on but who needs firewood. And we’ve all become rather proud of our hidden network of trails in the woods, which Ron maintains. When he asked to build a wooden bridge over the stream where the neighbors’ right-of-way crosses abbey property, of course I said yes. My mailbox is half a mile away, and the best walk to the mailbox goes over the bridge and through the woods.

Ron’s organizational skills have turned this little village into a Neighborhood Watch on steroids. Many of the neighbors now have handheld radios, and Ron and I monitor for calls for help. Help has been needed surprisingly often, such as when a 77-year-old neighbor overturned her ATV on a steep hill and was trapped underneath it in the woods, or when another elderly neighbor had symptoms of a heart attack while in the woods hunting turkeys. Everyone has different skills and different kinds of tools. In a village, those skills and tools are available to all. When a culvert washed out a few weeks ago under the road down in the bottom (it’s an unpaved private road, and maintaining it is our responsibility), one of the neighbors brought in his Bobcat and fixed it. That same neighbor now supplies us with eggs. The best I’ve been able to offer him in return so far was enough of my wild persimmons to make a pudding. Everybody has a garden, and everybody shares. Power outages, wind storms, washouts from heavy rain, accidents — there’s always something. One of the biggest shockers to me is that, though most of the neighbors identify as doughty hunters, they rarely shoot anything. Instead they’re on the lookout for poachers that might threaten the local deer, many of whom (including the white deer) have names. Just this week Ron called the game warden because somebody was trying to spotlight our village deer. Ron and someone he knows recently did a census of the local raccoon population, using trained dogs. Six or eight raccoons were treed, but none were harmed. They know where the owls live. They feed the fish down in our little creek, from which irrigation water for gardens is available to any higher-elevation neighbors with tanks and tractors (else Ron will haul it for them). They’ve put out the word that, if anybody is trapping surplus opossums, we could use some more here. If Pete, one of the horses up the hill, breaks out of the pasture, I hear about it, and where Pete pooped, on community radio. As Ken’s article mentions, I’m the “comms” guy, because I have an extra class amateur radio license. And, yes, we all know how to shoot. Ron and his dad set up a shooting range down in the bottom, and it’s available for villagers to go practice. The noise is sometimes annoying, but it’s more a weekly thing than an everyday thing.

Increasingly, what I’m seeing here reminds me of what I remember from the 1950s — the traditional skills and infrastructure that make a high degree of self-sufficiency possible, just because people make their livings at home. Yes, most of us here are retired, but we still work. In a way, Covid-19 has done the world a favor by requiring that we rethink how much of our work can be done from home and how our neighborhoods can expand into local pods. I know that we can’t all live in rural villages. But virtual villages can exist anywhere. I well remember how much Hillary Clinton was ridiculed (by Republicans) for her book It Takes a Village. The ridicule says a lot about the madness of our era, when many people are taught by propaganda to ridicule the very things they most need and are lacking, including an honest politics that serves people’s actual needs. If America is ever great again (whatever that means), surely it will be something that grows bottom-up, instead of being sold as a scam, top down. Until that time comes, I consider it a privilege to have so much space around me, and a level of security that I wish everyone could have.


A neighbor’s wood pile. I helped split the wood.


Pete’s and Buddy’s pasture


The backroad to the mailbox


The road descends past the abbey toward the creek bottom.


Helping the neighbors build their watch tower (no kidding) up on the ridge. That’s Ron’s dad on the right.


The founding members of No Fracking in Stokes. I’m in the back. Winston-Salem Journal photo.


Me as county chair with Deborah Ross, who was running for the U.S. Senate


Ken and me, June 2011


A limousine picks up Ken for one of his many television appearances after Walden on Wheels was published. Yes, that’s the famous van.


She who rules

During the month before the Nov. 3 election, a film crew from Los Angeles and New York was in North Carolina to shoot a documentary called Swing State. They spent several days in Stokes County. I helped show them around and helped them decide whom to interview. Here they are interviewing local candidates for the North Carolina legislature. The documentary should be released next year. I was interviewed, too, and probably will make it into the finished documentary.

The Duchess of Duke Street


In 1971, when Alistair Cooke began hosting Masterpiece Theater on PBS, the quality of American television went up several notches. Though series such as Upstairs, Downstairs were enormously popular, this wasn’t television for the American masses, who still preferred the networks to PBS. It was an elite sort of thing for liberals and the literati. A new generation of Anglophiles (including me) came on line. And it wasn’t long before reduced-rate airlines flying the new Boeing 747’s started the trend that we now call the democratization of air travel. New York to London was a hot ticket. I made my first crossing in 1984.

The Duchess of Duke Street was created by John Hawkesworth, the producer of Upstairs, Downstairs. But Louisa Leyton, the main character, is not a real duchess. She is a low-born Englishwoman whose great ambition is to become the best cook in England. The story starts in 1900. The character is based on Rosa Lewis, who owned the Cavendish Hotel in London and who died in 1952.

Of the BBC series of that vintage, I still rate the original Poldark (1975) as the best. I’ll never forget how my socially insecure Welsh friend (now deceased), then starting out as a solicitor in London, referred to Winston Graham as a “middle brow” writer. In the U.S., Winston Graham was highbrow. He was unknown in the U.S. until Poldark and Masterpiece Theater. Soon Graham was selling books in America, but I had to buy my first Winston Graham at a bookshop in London.

Amazon Prime now has the full Duchess of Duke Street series for streaming. It’s a fine social drama, but it’s a shame that it isn’t a bit more of a cooking show. There are tantalizing scenes in the kitchen with glimpses of what they’re cooking, with gleaming copper pots and all sorts of hand-powered cooking equipment. They appear to actually be cooking during the show at times.

The Duchess of Duke Street is a kind of period piece within a period piece. It takes us back to 1900, but it also takes us back to 1975.

Tolkien on HBO


I resisted watching this, because I was afraid that the film had turned the story of Tolkien’s life into yet another costume romance for, and about, twenty-somethings set in all the usual sorts of glamorous British settings. In fact, it is that, and it requires that we re-imagine the quintessential white-haired and tweedy Oxford professor as a studly (but already tweedy) young man playable by Nicholas Hoult. But it turned out to be more.

There can be no doubt that Tolkien’s early friendships, and the loss of so many of those friends in World War I, are to be found between the lines of The Lord of the Rings. This screenplay gets a bit deeper into the texts than I expected, and it spends just enough time on philology — and in those photogenic Oxford libraries — to shed light on the lifelong scholarship that underpins Tolkien’s stories. Derek Jacobi as the linguist Joseph Wright — whose life story is just as interesting as Tolkien’s — ought to lead to a reprint of Wright’s 1910 Grammar of the Gothic Language. (I’d buy it.) Twenty-somethings could learn a lot from this film about the history of the English language, and why that history is worth caring about.

An obnoxious blogger who calls himself “the Imaginative Conservative” wrote last year: “I expressed my fears and misgivings about the new film, Tolkien, which focuses on the writer’s youth. I was concerned that the film would convey a homosexual and anti-Catholic agenda, weaving a fabric of lies of which Wormtongue himself would be proud. I cited the track record of the two screenwriters, David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford, and predicted the worst.”

But, after seeing the film, he wrote: “The homosexual agenda is inserted incognito in the characterization of Tolkien’s friend, Geoffrey Bache Smith, but in such a subtle manner that only the cognoscenti will notice it.”

Such is the conservative mind. I’d put it differently. The screenwriters encrypted — and in a historically accurate way — the other romance in the film so that it would go right over the heads of conservative churchlings. To everyone else, it should be very clear. There is in fact a good bit of scholarship supporting the possibility that Geoffrey Bache Smith was in love with Tolkien. Smith died during the war at the age of 22. Tolkien later published a volume of Smith’s poems. In the last scenes of the film, Tolkien is meeting with Smith’s mother. “I never knew Geoffrey,” she says. “Was he happy? Please. Tell me. Did he know love?” Hoult looks at her, and the camera searches his face. But he doesn’t answer.

Hence I upgrade this film’s grade from a C to an A. It’s quite an achievement when the subtext of a story can quietly hold its own against the text, while as a bonus bringing the roots of the English language to our attention.

Back from the Dark Ages: Leeks


Leeks, where have you been all my life? As I was making yet another pot of leek and potato soup today, I found myself wondering: When did I first see leeks? Why have I never seen them growing? Just when did they start showing up in grocery stores this time of year? I don’t really recall, but leeks are relatively new to me. As much as I love onions, surely I wouldn’t have wasted much time trying them out. I don’t recall ever seeing them in California, either.

The Wikipedia article has some clues: “Because of their symbolism in Wales … , they have come to be used extensively in that country’s cuisine. Elsewhere in Britain, leeks have come back into favor only in the last 50 years or so, having been overlooked for several centuries.” Nothing is said about leeks in America. So more research is in order.

As for growing them, I probably won’t, for the same reason I decided not to grow garlic. Leeks (and garlic) like to grow for up to 180 days, it seems. That’s too long to take up space in the garden, especially for a plant as large as leeks.

Leek and potato soup is my favorite soup all of a sudden. It’s amazing how a vegetable so green and rich with fiber is so creamy in a soup.

According to the Wikipedia article, leeks were known in ancient Egypt. The Romans ate them. Our word leek, says Wikipedia (and my dictionary confirms it) comes from an Anglo-Saxon word, which makes leeks that much more special to me: “The name ‘leek’ developed from the Old English word lēac, from which the modern English name for garlic also derives.”


Leek and potato soup


The entry for lēac in my Anglo-Saxon dictionary

A dry history of interesting times



The Oxford History of Anglo-Saxon England. Sir Frank Stenton, Oxford University Press, 1943. 766 pages.


Robin Hood? King Arthur? We all know the myths about Anglo-Saxon England. But if we were called upon to name a fact or two about Anglo-Saxon England, most of us would just scratch our heads.

For a long time, I wrongly assumed that little is known about Anglo-Saxon England. That’s not true. But first, let’s define that period as roughly from 450 A.D. (as Rome’s influence in Britain petered out) until 1066 (the Norman Conquest). If a historian writing in 1943 can write a dense 766-page tome on this period, then obviously it’s not true that little is known. So I will amend my view: Little that is interesting is known about Anglo-Saxon England.

To be sure, a more interesting and more modern book than this one could be written on Anglo-Saxon England. Modern historians concern themselves with more interesting things than earlier historians. (Frank Stenton was born in 1880.) But, if a similarly thorough book on Anglo-Saxon England exists, I have not yet found it. Maybe that’s why this book has gone through multiple editions (1943, 1947, 1971) and multiple printings (1975, 1984, 1985, 1986, 1987). People still buy it.

My No. 1 question about Anglo-Saxon England would be: What might it have been like to live then? Using some imagination to interpolate and extrapolate from what is known about this period, it’s not impossible to make some guesses. Stenton, certainly, had no choice but to limit himself to the available sources — the monk Gildas, for example (c. 500 – c. 570), and the better-known Bede (c. 672 – 735). Here are some less-than-thrilling chapter titles:

The Ascendancy of the Mercian Kings
The English Church from Theodore to Boniface
The Tenth-Century Reformation
The Reorganization of the English Church

Other chapters are somewhat more helpful:

Learning and Literature in Early England
The Conversion of the English People
The Structure of Early English Society

What might it have been like to live then? It was a dangerous time to live. Everyone was exposed to wars and raids. Everyone needed the protection of one of the many little kings. People paid for that protection with the produce of the land, their labor, and military service when required. Most people, of course, were peasants, who mostly lived in villages and subsisted through cooperative farming. As kings granted land and special rights to abbeys and peers, the English manorial system, and an aristocracy, gradually developed.

Vast amounts of effort was spent on churchification. Popes, working from Rome, made repeated efforts to convert the pagans, assert papal power, and establish churches and monasteries. New bishops and their churches popped up all over and gradually grew richer. At first, there was some organized pagan resistance. That resistance steadily died out. I think it would be safe to say that, by the time of the Norman Conquest, paganism in Britain was dead, except in isolated places such as the Scottish Highlands.

Stenton occasionally uses the word “pagan,” but usually he uses the words heathen and heathenism. What this reflects, of course, is the unquestioning assumption of earlier generations that the church brought moral progress and nobler lives to the heathens. I say fiddlesticks. But that’s the way it is in older histories. One has to read older histories as a kind of history of history.

To try to get a feel for what is actually known about this time and place — England during the Dark Ages — by no means makes that time and place less appealing to the imagination. If you want castles and chivalry, you’ll have to wait a bit. But if I had a time machine, good shoes, warm clothing, a squad of bodyguards, and all my vaccinations up to date, this is one of the first places I’d want to go for a visit.

Could it happen again?


Decent Americans are horrified by the fact that 45 percent of American voters would vote for a con man like Donald Trump. Having lived in the American South for much of my life and having known many Republican jackasses, and having observed as these people have been manipulated and misled since the televangelist days, I believe I’m as qualified as anybody to describe what’s wrong with Trump voters and to make some guesses about how dangerous they will be in the future.

I have written here in the past about what’s wrong with authoritarians, whose moral and cognitive defects find a home with their own kind in the Republican Party and evangelical churches. I have argued that authoritarians are not just morally different, they are morally defective. I have argued that one of their most dangerous defects is the inability to judge character. A short way of saying it is that they have low moral IQ’s. Incapable of understanding the thinking of people with higher moral intelligence, they project their own inner ugliness onto others. They seem to truly believe, as they try to steal an election, that the people they hate are stealing the election from them. For an academic view of what’s wrong with authoritarians, I recommend the work of Bob Altemeyer, a Canadian psychologist who made a career of studying authoritarians. It was Altemeyer, for example, who described the creepy submissiveness of authoritarians, the factor that makes them crave a Big Man (it’s usually a man) to submit to and to be commanded by. You see this craving for submissiveness in their churches, too — the deep need to grovel before an all-powerful god and to “submit to God’s will.”

Yes, they have always been with us. But how dangerous they are outside their own families depends on who winds them up and leads them. Their abilities are too limited to self-organize. Most of them, with modest natural gifts and modest educations, never achieve much. Even in small, localized aggregations such as a lynch mob, you will find a leader, and the rest are just a mob. That leader will be one of the worst of them, someone with a special gift for incitement and manipulation. Comparing Trump’s Republican Party with the Nazi Party is entirely fair. Psychologically they’re the same people. The big difference is that Trump is incompetent, and he didn’t have a plan. But Hitler was a genius, and he did have a plan, which is why the scale of Hitler’s catastrophe was so much greater. In the U.S., it would be interesting to track the behavior of authoritarian mobs all the way back to the Civil War. But I’m not a historian, so I would presume to track them based only on what I’ve seen in my lifetime. My view is that though morally defective people are always with us, they become a threat to all of us only when they have a Big Man such as a Hitler or a Trump.

They were certainly active, and violent, during the Civil Rights era. But I was just a boy then. It was during the 1980s, during the rise of televangelists, that I really began to notice them. Jim and Tammy Bakker were a classic example. It was clear that people could be separated into two categories — those who would laugh and see instantly that Jim and Tammy Bakker were frauds and grifters, and those who saw God in them and sent them money. The televangelist era, though, was just a business operation, a way of separating the gullible from their money.

The danger to the nation began in 1996, with Fox News. Fox News — owned, of course, by a billionaire oligarch — went to work, profitably, creating a propaganda narrative that would turn the gullible into an angry base for the Republican Party. That base was too dim to realize that they never got anything out of it, other than scapegoats, fears, the bliss of their hatred and rage, and solidarity with their fellow authoritarians. The true agenda was the agenda of plutocrats and oligarchs. The rich got richer, the poor got poorer. Authoritarians ate it up, feasting on right-wing red meat that would gag their dogs. When Trump came along, they finally had their Big Man. They got their hands on the highest office in the land — the presidency. To do it, they all had to work together — the propaganda arm (Fox News), the Republican Party, authoritarian churches, and just enough gullible voters to achieve minority rule. The rest is history, and I need not try to recite it here.

So the question is, can it happen again?

In a Nov. 6 piece in the Atlantic, Zeynep Tufekci writes that America’s Next Authoritarian Will Be Much More Competent. He is right. And his warning implicitly acknowledges that the gullible masses are dangerous only when they have a Big Man. But the Big Man can’t do it alone. As in 2016, a high level of organization is required, involving Fox News and the Republican Party, in addition to enraged authoritarian voters and a Big Man.

I’m of the view that what Trump does hereafter doesn’t matter. Trump is doomed, though someone will try to take his place.

What matters now is: What will Fox News do? What will the Republican Party do? Will they find and anoint another Big Man and try to pull off another 2016? Or will 2020 have taught them that that won’t work anymore, because decent America is onto them? I have no predictions on that, because neither Fox News nor the Republican Party is rational. If they were, they’d modify their strategies to try to appeal to a larger number of voters and stop trying to maintain minority rule. They surely must realize that everything they did during the 2020 election to fire up the base backfired by motivating decent Americans to see the emergency and go vote.

With Trump doomed (and headed to prison), the vast right-wing conspiracy is like a snake without a head. The useless thrashing and rattling are now dominating the news. If they try for a repeat of 2016, then we must wait to see whether they are able to find and raise up another Big Man. If they do, then we must take him down, quick and early. We were far too slow in recognizing the danger of Donald Trump, because to decent people Trump (like the early Hitler) is just a clown and con man.

Goodbye, Donald Trump. Your doom will be a joy to watch, as justice and the law and your debts catch up with you. As you go to join your good friend Adolph and wait for your children and your party lords to come burn with you, try not to let the gates of hell hit you in the ass on the way in.




One of the services that the church provides to the sorriest and most demented of human beings is that it allows them to believe that they are morally superior to the people they hate.

 

Georgia on our minds





It’s Friday night, and we’re still waiting for the media to call the election. Once we’ve won the White House, all civilized eyes will turn to the Georgia Senate runoffs in January, America’s only hope for a Congress that will work with President Biden.

Everyone seems to be listening to some version of “Georgia on My Mind” tonight.

10, 9, 8, 7, 6 …



Jake Gyllenhaal in “October Sky”

The past two days have been among the most stressful and miserable days I can remember, as we all wait to find out whether the American democracy will live or die. I don’t plan to write about this until the election has been called, and after I’ve had a little time to think about what comes next.

For tonight, though, while waiting for votes to be counted in Pennsylvania, my therapy will be watching “October Sky,” a very fine feel-good movie. If the counting goes on long enough, I might even have to watch “Love, Actually,” even if that’s a Christmas movie.

Gothic weather for a gothic election



Source: Screen shot from Windy.com, 8 a.m. EDT, Oct. 29, 2020. The remnants of Hurricane Zeta, moving northeast, will pass over Acorn Abbey in a few hours.

Here in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, we’d be hard pressed to say which time of year is the best. The two choices are pretty clear, though: October or early May. October is the gothic month: cool air, the first frost, dry leaves blowing and rattling, pumpkins, long nights, the first fire in the fireplace, voles stealing insulation to line their nests, insects trying to sneak inside for the winter, soups on the stove, and, finally, Halloween, the most gothic day of the year.

Early voting started in North Carolina on Oct. 15, and I’ve been putting in six-day weeks as a poll observer. I’m taking today off, though, because few people will vote in this heavy rain and heavy wind, and I wanted to stay home and savor such a gothic day.

As a poll observer, I’ve been sitting in a chair near the voter check-in desk, watching hundreds of voters file by in the little suburban town of King, North Carolina — a place with hardly any non-white minorities, but lots of churches and lots and lots of Republicans. I don’t dare make any predictions, after the traumatic election day of 2016. But if this election goes the way I expect it to go — a landslide against the Republican Party and Trump — then the people of King don’t quite know what’s about to hit them. I think they suspect it, because quite a few of them come into the church gymnasium where they’re voting testy and not wearing masks. They find it necessary to smart off with a Republican talking point to a poll worker loud enough to be heard. A few days ago, someone left a pile of chicken bones underneath a Biden-Harris sign out in the electioneering area. Occasionally, insults fly, and petty complaints get filed with the county board of elections. There are rumors — unsubstantiated — about what one of the several militias might do on election day.

I’ve been involved in local politics for going on eight years now. Never before have I seen the Democratic Party so well organized at the state and national level. In 2016, operatives for the Hillary Clinton campaign asked for office space at Democratic headquarters in our little red county, and soon they vanished, the thin staff redeployed to urban areas where there were more votes to be had. But, this year, we have Democratic operatives falling all over us. It seems the word went out months ago that lawyers were needed in swing states such as North Carolina to protect the vote. I’m reporting to a young Harvard lawyer who is responsible for a 10-county district.

These lawyers arrived early (in August), and they have stayed with us. A couple of days ago, one lawyer (a volunteer from Washington state), troubled by the aggressiveness of local Republicans, asked to be reassigned to a different county, because she feared for her safety here. But another lawyer was immediately assigned to take her place. The Democratic Party and these lawyers have built tracking and scheduling systems for poll watching at all 100 North Carolina counties. Normally, as a county-level Democratic operative, I’d make my own decisions about where to be on election day. But this year I’m just a local volunteer in this statewide operation. The cavalry is here.

I’ve also been attending the two weekly meetings of the county board of elections, at which the board members open and approve absentee ballots. During each meeting, a lawyer is assigned to be in touch with me by telephone and text messages. After each meeting, I file a detailed report about how the meeting went and how many absentee ballots were approved (or disapproved, if any). A local Democratic lawyer also is attending most of these meetings.

Republicans are trying like hell to suppress the vote and steal the election in North Carolina, but, from what I’ve seen, they’ll have a very hard time doing it. Just yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against efforts by North Carolina Republicans to shorten the window for counting absentee ballots received by mail. Republicans, certainly, are turning out to vote. But Republican efforts to suppress the vote seem to have backfired, as all across the country people are turning out in record numbers to vote early.

I have a four-year-old bottle of champagne left over from Election Day 2016. The bottle was never opened, for obvious reasons. Next week on Nov. 3, it’s going to be chilled and ready. The rain and wind are picking up now. Radar now shows that I’m in a red zone for heavy rain. The brownouts are starting. I’ll probably lose power today. The forecast for election day, though, is for sunny and cool, with a high of 58. It should be one of those autumn days with a golden sunset.


Republican chicken bones under a Biden-Harris sign, King, North Carolina