09. Believing in Birds

September 2020

Heavy rain fell last night, and it felt like a much-needed shower after the degradation of the first presidential debate. Today was my training session for becoming an election worker, and I was grateful for this small concrete thing that occupied my attention for a few hours while everything else feels like it's coming undone.

We reported for training at the Javits Convention Center, which had been a makeshift hospital earlier this year. Now it's a husk of Robocop architecture filled with shuttered shops and empty escalators, save for the decals on the floor that kept us six feet apart before we filed into a conference room for four hours. A small bald man barked at us like a drill sergeant, running us through the logistics of address changes, court-ordered ballots, and affidavit requests. "You'll be working at least seventeen hours on Election Day," he said. "So bring a sandwich." Seventeen hours is workable, but I made a strangled noise when he said we had to be there at five o'clock in the morning, which is usually my bedtime. But I'll gut it out. Every vote truly counts in this election, even in New York City. Each vote that makes it onto the scoreboard on election night will help inoculate us against the thieving fuckery that's sure to come.

They gave us a 116-page manual and showed us a video that told us not to wear flip flops. "And remember, remain calm and neutral in all circumstances," said the video. I learned that ballots come in packs of fifty, and we must mark an X on a paper grid whenever we give one to a voter. The machines are horribly complicated creatures that require configuration reports, diagnostic tape, serial-numbered tags, and sealed envelopes. There's a device with a beautiful sci-fi name called The Cradlepoint that networks the polling site. We learned how to plug it in. They told us to cover extension cords and remove any items that a voter might bump into. We learned the appropriate distances that must be observed for exit polling and political discussion. We did hypothetical math problems that tallied up emergency ballots, voided ballots, and any ballots remaining in the scanner.

We will wipe down surfaces after each voter. And we must work in bipartisan teams at all times, so maybe I'll make a new friend.

After a few weeks away from New York, I thought the city would feel different when I returned from the Midwestern wilderness. I thought I'd feel overwhelmed or awed, or at least see its New Yorkness with fresh eyes. But this city's muscle-memory is a remarkably stubborn thing; the moment I stepped onto First Avenue and waited for the crosswalk, it felt as if I'd only been away for a few hours.

But there's a distinct quietness, a holding of the breath. It feels like the city is waiting. Waiting to see how the election turns out. Waiting to see if the infection rate will spike once the weather turns cold. Will our masks and distancing shield us, or will we return to the shuttered days of April when ambulances filled the night?

If I've gleaned anything from keeping a glum journal throughout this year, it's that I keep returning to the language of grief. It seems like the closest reference point for being pushed into such disorienting terrain.

Standing in a superstore parking lot before leaving Ohio, I watched some geese fly south, and I remembered my parents' relationship with birds. My mother was a lapsed Catholic who kept the church at a distance. My father never talked about god. Not until the end. But they both believed in birds.

My father lost his mom to cancer when he was twenty-four. I never met her, but I know she loved the great blue heron, a big swoopy thing that dragged its legs across the sky. Whenever my parents saw one, they'd pull the car to the side of the road and gawk. There she is, they'd whisper. My father would bite his lip, and it was the closest I ever saw him come to tears until the day my mother died.

My grandfather kept a stuffed bald eagle in the basement, an oddly seditious act. But he was all too happy to show you the federal paperwork, including a letter with the president's seal that said the bird was legal. He found it on the beach when he was a boy. It had a broken wing, and he tried to nurse it back to health but failed. After my grandfather died, my father reported seeing bald eagles in improbable places. A parking lot outside of Grand Rapids. Circling over the Detroit interstate.

My father's faith in birds deepened after my mother died. "Now she's a blue jay," he said. "Remember how excited she would get when she saw the first one each spring?" Over the years, he would call at odd hours with reports of blue jays. He saw one perched on the railing of the building where he moved after selling the house. He saw one on the hospital lawn after his lung transplant. He saw blue jays in places they don't live. Over the years, I became accustomed to how he'd clear his throat to make space for his inventory of herons, eagles, and blue jays. These birds were plain facts to him, proof of a sensible universe where those who left us did not leave us.

I realized too late that I never knew my father's favorite bird, and now there's nobody left to ask. But if I see a blue jay flying alongside a different bird, maybe a cardinal or robin, I'll know that's the one.

Perhaps it's more fruitful to contemplate the desire to believe rather than the shape it takes.


  • Some algorithm suggested I watch Million Dollar Baby, and so I did, thinking it might be some classed-up version of Rocky or Karate Kid that I could half-watch while I worked. But holy Christ, it's the most relentless film I've seen in ages. By the time Clint Eastwood was explaining the meaning of mo chuisle, I was bawling. Not sure if this speaks to the quality of the movie or my state of mind these days.

  • I was so excited about the first few episodes of Raised By Wolves, which seemed like it was setting the table for a cosmic fable about faith. Then it went manic and supernatural. Now I'm rewatching Halt and Catch Fire because it's a rare show about creativity—and oddly reassuring despite (or because of?) its heartbreaking early-days optimism about technology.