Choices

The girl had washboard abs, highlighted by her teeny tiny running shorts and sports bra. Glowing as only a young 20-something can, she filled out her form and joked with my friend who was helping her register to vote (or, perhaps, to change her address for her voter registration). She was the fourth person I saw come up to the table and ask for a form in the three minutes I’d been there, and I had yet to be trained on how to fill out the paperwork, to fill out the receipt, to code the form so the Powers That Be would know which drive the form came from.

“Register to vote!” said the large sign in front of the table, set underneath a shade tent beside a tree in the park on Saturday. There were also Obama ’08 signs and a Mark Udall sign, the democratic candidate for the up-for-grabs senate seat. There were bottles of water, pens galore, not enough chairs. After I’d been trained, another volunteer came by, and the two of us went out to roam around the park, me with my floppy straw hat, her looking efficient and preppy. “I’m a registered Republican, lifelong,” the woman told me, “but I’ve voted Democrat in the last 3 elections. And now I’m volunteering for the Obama campaign.” We came upon a group of people about to sit down to a cookout, parents and children and babies and old folks, people who were Southern expats, all football fans of the Southeastern college football conference. Normally arch rivals, once a year they gather together to celebrate the start of college football, strangers in this strange land of the Big 10, where people don’t plan their Saturdays for months around football games. One man registered.

We approached small groups and large groups. Many of them seemed nervous at our arrival, and visibly relaxed when we asked if they were registered to vote, and moved on at a “yes.” We passed a large volleyball tournament, people lounging in the shade and munching on all manner of foodstuffs, and I signed up three people to vote, all change-of-address. Someone offered me a bagel. It was warm, verging on hot in the sun, and the dark clouds to the west meant that we’d probably get an afternoon thunderstorm. The air was changing, becoming oppressive, and my back and neck were bothering me from the hard yoga class I took on Friday. I signed up another person, born two days before me, only a US citizen for two years so it was her first time voting. She held her curly-haired cherubic daughter on her lap as I filled out her reciept, feeling that the sun and the sore back and the angry woman who shouted at me when I asked if she was registered were all worth it, because I got to witness something truly powerful.

* * * * * * *

My first thought was that it smelled like Berkeley, like Telegraph avenue.

“Wanna go see what’s going on out there?” asked my coworker yesterday around lunchtime. “Sure,” I said. We left (through the front door, making sure we had our IDs) and headed for Civic Center Park, the area between the state Capitol and the City and County building. The park was milling with people in orange jumpsuits, with people selling buttons, with people holding signs. It smelled like Telegraph, a combination of patchouli and pot and unwashed people I thought unique to Berkeley or maybe Haight street 10 years ago, but just as I had that thought I turned around and saw at least fifteen police officers on horseback watching the unorganized protestors. Next to them were two men in “Cop Watch” neon green vests, I guess to make sure there were observers to witness any police brutality. And then I laughed out loud, because one of them was the guy who sells political bumper stickers on Telegraph Avenue, the guy with the long hair and beard that used to be mostly red and now is more white and who has been selling stickers in the same spot for at least the last 12 years. And here he was, in Denver, watching cops.

I wandered through an interesting structure, built of some sort of fabric to look like a mosque, filled with photos and faces of Islamic people just being themselves. It was clear that the purpose was for us bloodthirsty Americans to see what Muslim culture is really like, that there is more to Islam than suicide bombing and burning American flags and jihadism, but it struck me as trying a little too hard.

Many of the protesters started a march down the 16th Street mall, at the other end of which is the Convention Center where the DNC is being held. Throngs and crowds of people don’t appeal to me, but I was curious so I watched for a little while as the protesters were followed by police on horseback who were followed by cop watch guys who were followed by curious onlookers. I saw lots of people wearing Obama merchandise and only one wearing Hillary stuff. I went back to my office, unwilling to see the outcome of the protest because there were just too many people in that one space.

* * * * * * *

Having spent the last two weeks watching the Olympics, seeing the occasional puff piece about China (the food on sticks! the wall! the gymnasts taken from home at age 3! oh. wait.), I’ve been thinking a lot about our trip to China back in 2005 (the reason I started this blog, in a way, so there would be a place to store Dan’s trip report). I thought about what it was like to be a Western tourist in China, to visit so many of the places they showed during the Olympics (especially the Marathon, they ran by all kinds of stuff we walked by when we were there), to observe people living their everyday lives in a mix of ancient and ultra-modern. One of the reasons we went to China when we did was to see some of the ancient stuff before it was torn down and covered over by modernity, and even back in the fall of 2005 everyone was very excited to be on the world’s stage in 2008. I thought about what the Olympics means, to have a host and hundreds of countries compete against one another in pure unadulterated atheletic achievement, to set aside political differences and just enjoy the opportunity to meet people from all over the world while performing great feats of physical strength, grace, speed. I was not surprised when journalists were denied access to certain websites (despite China’s assurances that they’d have access to everything). I was not surprised when stories arose about underage gymnasts and other ways in which China might be bending the rules in order to win the most golds. I was not surprised when I learned of the nationwide training program begun in 2001 designed to develop athletes who could compete against the best in any other country in as many disciplines as possible, and kids were taken from their homes and families and put through the Chinese Olympics Machine, doing nothing but training (no school, no time to do anything but become the best). I was not surprised because, as much as China wants the rest of the world to see how enlightened and developed and modernized they are, the truth is far murkier.

I will forever be grateful that I was born in, grew up in, and live in a country where I have choices. The athletes in America choose to train and compete, and the livelihoods of their families are not dependent on whether or not athletes continue to train and win medals. Citizens in this country have the right to vote for whomever we please to the highest office in the land. And we have the right to protest when there is something we feel strongly about, whether it be a war or animal rights or abortion or something else entirely. We are not punished for speaking our minds or for wanting to have some say in how our government is run or for deciding that hey, we’d rather go to college to become a dentist than remain a national diving champion. When Chinese citizens have these choices, I think China will truly have shown the first world that they’re ready to compete. Until that time, I’m going to continue to be pleased by the choices that are available to me and my fellow Americans and my future potential progeny, and be thankful that everyone in this country has those choices.

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