The Dark Tower – Stephen King

The Dark Tower has been on my to-read list longer than I think any other book. I first considered reading it sometime in high school, but never got around to it until I found a copy in a used book store a couple of weeks ago. It also occurred to me as I made my way through that this is also the first Stephen King novel I’ve read. That leaves me with a lot of catching up to do, on the one hand, but some amount of ambivalence on the other.

A short synopsis: Roland is a Gunslinger walking across a post-apocalyptic(?) wasteland giving chase to the Man in Black, who he blames for having caused the destruction of his home and family. The Man in Black has left traps for Roland and he is briefly waylaid by an orgiastic interlude with Alice and the need to take care of Jake, a lost boy who is from another time and place, but the pursuit continues.

I can see why people like The Dark Tower and I can see why it is a classic. Roland is one of those tenacious archetypes of the lone hero who can’t be deterred from his mission and flashbacks to his upbringing hint at the prodigy of stubbornness. Even his prey is nameless and faceless through most of the book, adding to the archetypes. The world is a post-apocalyptic mashup of the American southwest, medieval Europe, and some added flavor from elsewhere, and, for the most part, the story is solidly crafted to have a surreal aura. Still, I found something lacking. For one thing, it reminded me of a number of 1970s/1980s fantasy novels with pseudo-terrestrial settings that I almost always find jarring. Dystopias where something has happened are fine, but for a book to not really be set on earth yet feature a christianity as the common religion take me out of the setting. For another, I found the first third of the book or so to be fairly jumbled up and somewhat overwritten. It is not that this section was exactly bad (it reveals Roland’s character and gives plenty of setting), but I didn’t understand why I ought to care about any of this. In contrast, once The Dark Tower started to give Roland context through flashbacks, something that both played in- and added onto his archetype, the story got significantly better.

The Dark Tower ends by answering one of the questions it starts out with, but also opening up the setting for the rest of the books in the series. I don’t know that I will read them, though I have been told that the next few, at least, are worth reading. I liked The Dark Tower well enough, but King’s writing and the story didn’t grip me the way other series sometimes have and I have a lengthy to-read list that includes a number of fantasy books by authors I like a lot more.

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I finished reading Norman Davies’ Vanished Kingdoms this morning and will write up some thoughts about that at some point. Next up is Leonardo Sciascia’s mystery novel To Each His Own.

The Thin Man – Dashiell Hammett

The first, finest, and most famous adventure of Nick and Nora Charles, involving an unknown number of “perfect” crimes and two lovely girls fighting over Nick–and Nora never losing her cool.

One of the things I am most pleased with my reading for this year is getting back into reading quality mystery and noir fiction. A couple weeks ago I found two classic Dashiell Hammett books in a used book store, one of those being The Thin Man.

Nick Charles is a former private eye now in private industry on the West Coast, but is back in his old stomping grounds of New York with his beautiful young wife Nora. Technically, they are there on business, but really just there to drink. While out on the town, Nick’s detective past comes back into his life when he is greeted by the beautiful* young Dorothy Wynant, the daughter of a former client, the inventor Clyde Wynant. Her father is missing, and Nick ends up in touch with Herbert Macauley, the lawyer with power of attorney over the Wynant estate, who enlists his help in finding out who killed Clyde Wynant’s secretary. The bulk of the book is spent going in circles as Nick resists getting drawn into the tangle of hostile relationships that traps the Wynants (including mom Mimi and brother Gilbert), but nevertheless solves the case.

[* He describes her as “small and blonde, and whether you looked at her face or at her body in powder-blue sports clothes, the result was satisfactory.”]

I liked The Thin Man. It could have done a little bit better a job foreshadowing the dramatic turn at the end, but that was a minor issue. The story was well-paced and the reveal was satisfactory. The main thing that jumped out at me was the issue of gender, though I was willing to make some allowances for its age. The book cover implied that one of the exciting features of Nick Charles is that he is the object of women throwing himself at him and his powers of observation as a private eye gives him excuse to look at women. Despite my initial eye-roll at the women throwing themselves at Nick, it actually made some sense. The first woman is Dorothy, who was fascinated by Nick when she was twelve and is now a twenty-year-old socialite whose youthful crush is reignited particularly when drunk; the second is her mother Mimi, who was less believable as a flirtatious and “crazy” woman. However, the reason I came around to the dynamics was Nora Charles. More than staying cool, she has a relationship with Nick where they both tease each other about people who flirt with them and Nick never strays. More than that, Nora is not the experienced gumshoe that Nick is, but she is clever, clear-eyed, and talented.

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I am still behind one review, having also finished The Dark Tower. I’m going to start reading something new later today, but haven’t decided yet what that book will be.

The Better Angels of Our Nature – Steven Pinker

We are surrounded by signs of the depravity of our ancestors’ way of life, but we are barely aware of them.

Whatever causes violence, it is not a perennial urge like hunger, sex, or the need to sleep

The Better Angels of Our Nature has been on my reading list basically since it came out, but I finally decided to read it in a moment of despair after the recent presidential election. My plan was actually to read it over Thanksgiving break, but I wound up doing it in spurts over about three weeks. Better Angels is an impressive book, but I came out with much of my skepticism about the premise confirmed, now with ways to articulate these thoughts.

The core argument in Better Angels is simple: we are living in the most peaceful era of human history. All the trend lines concerning xxx-cide (and Pinker includes many) slope downward, despite jagged spikes for the World Wars. We might feel like the world is more dangerous because of saturated coverage of death, but the trends are clear. According to Pinker, this is something that he is (and we should be) optimistic about.

Pinker begins Better Angels by offering an avalanche of evidence for the violence of the world of yesteryear, including rape, torture, and killing. His argument, which is not wrong per se, is that once upon a time the world was much more violent than it is today. This violence includes, according to Pinker, both violence in terms of percentages of people who die from it and the societal acceptance of and revelry in this violence. Pinker then charts what he calls the “Pacification Process,” crediting (principally) civilization, the humanitarian and rights revolutions, and a Hobbesian Leviathan for curbing the worse angels of human nature. Ironically, these revolutions saw a decrease in violence at the same time as the technological capacity to kill people more efficiently has increased. Pinker also delves into the human mind, showing with science how both violence and non-violence are natural parts of the human condition and that both of those instincts can be conditioned. From the title of the book, it is clear which side Pinker believes is winning.

I don’t disagree with the broad premise of Better Angels, even though I think the use of percentages of the population for the trends overlooks that there are so many more people alive and thus that a larger raw number of people comes across as a smaller percentage. But I have three more substantive critiques of Better Angels:

  • First, the past is a more violent place than the modern world. Full stop. However, throughout Better Angels Pinker tends to pick evidence that supports his theory and sometimes skirts studies that do not. I had a gut feeling about this in the waves of scientific studies, but I saw it clearly in his description of the past. Yes, the past was more violent, but it seemed to me that he overstated the case, particularly when it came to the battlefield, where has been suggested that death was significantly less common than is frequently assumed. Moreover, some of the same features that he credits with reducing violence in the modern world also existed in the premodern world.
  • Second, I couldn’t help but wonder about the human capacity to harm one another in ways that don’t result in death and therefore don’t necessarily show up on the charts. For instance, working poor people to death and starving third world children in slave labor factories are not things that will appear on a list of homicide, but are equally awful. Perhaps there are other charts that show optimistic trends on these fronts as well, but I wonder if the depravity has just been moved rather than curbed. Similarly, can the reduction in percentages of death in combat be attributed not to a reduction in conflict, but in advances in medical technology so battlefield wounds are not fatal?
  • Third, Better Angels was written right at the start of the Arab Spring, and Pinker is optimistic about the future of these secular uprisings in support of democracy. How does this same picture look in Syria five years later?

Pinker’s hypothesis is cultural and social rather than relying on rational actors, except in one single way. Pinker argues that the technological advances that allow for the easy killing on a wide scale were so horrible that they deterred people from actually using these weapons, particularly nuclear weapons. This aversion then led to a long peace. But the human capacity for violence is muted, not eliminated, and the aversion to violence and using nuclear weapons requires leaders to be nauseated by the consequences of using the weapons. What happens when there is a rise of militant nationalism? What happens when there is a resurgence in pseudo-scientific beliefs about a hierarchy of races? What happens when people don’t remember the spikes of violence on a mass-scale during the holocaust? What happens when leaders don’t grasp the consequences of nuclear weapons or simply don’t care? What if this long-term trend turns out to be the anomaly?

I am less optimistic than Pinker. I have some hope because I accept his core argument as valid, but there are also warning signs baked into the this trend. Some of these, such as increasingly destructive weapons leading to an aversion to their use, Pinker accepts as causal, but I am not so sure.

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Since finishing Better Angels I have since finished Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man and Stephen King’s The Dark Tower. I haven’t decided what I am going to read next.

Seven Things I Liked and Didn’t Like about Rogue One

I did this same sort of recap last year for The Force Awakens and figured I should just go ahead and do it again for Rogue One. Even though I am a book person and have read a lot of Star Wars books, I have read basically none of the novels set during the time of the movies. Still some caveats apply: I have read few reviews and almost none of the background on the reshoots, so it is possible I am mistaken about some aspects. Similarly, I these are things that stood out to me and may not be the same issues other people had. Overall: I enjoyed the experience of watching the film a great deal, but only if I didn’t think about it too much.

Fair warning: the rest of this post will contain spoilers for the movie, at least such that they exist. Anyone familiar with Star Wars is familiar with the ending writ large.

Continue reading Seven Things I Liked and Didn’t Like about Rogue One

Chess Story – Stefan Zweig

And, actually, isn’t it damn easy to think you’re a great man if you aren’t troubled by the slightest notion that a Rembrandt, Beethoven, Dante, or Napoleon ever existed? This lad has just one piece of knowledge in his blinkered brain–that he hasn’t lost a single chess game in months–and since he has no idea that there’s anything of value in the world other than chess and money, he has every reason to be pleased with himself.

Zweig’s posthumous novella, Chess Story is a tight little story about a casual chess match to pass the time on a twelve-day voyage from New York to Buenos Aires that develops into a deadly game between two masters, one professional, one amateur. The succession of chess games on the cruise, first between the narrator and the Scottish engineer McConnor, then between the mass of amateurs and the world champion Mirko Czentovic, and finally between Czentovic and an amateur bystander Dr. B. provide the structure for analyzing the psyches of the different characters, but much of the dramatic weight in Chess Story comes from explaining the how the two masters developed their skills.

Czentovic is the epitome of a prodigy, having been a peasant child without any particular skills or interests until he sees adults playing chess. Disinterested in the formal or abstract aspects of the game, Czentovic only plays whatever game is in front of him and does not lose to the same opponent twice in a row. Having beaten all comers in Europe and New York, he is now going on a world tour, convinced of his own genius and assured that his wealth makes him superior to everyone else.

In contrast, Dr. B. is an Austrian lawyer whose family managed the estates for the Hapsburg family and various German monasteries. He had played, without much interest, in grade school, but whose life involved being a discrete, quiet, and upstanding member of Austrian society, whose world is upended when he is turned in to Nazi authorities and arrested. Dr. B. returns to chess only by chance, but comes to use the abstract critical thinking of the game as a defense against interrogation…even if it eventually causes him to crack and be released as useless.

These two contrasting styles collide on this otherwise quiet cruise from New York to Buenos Aires.

Chess Story is a thoughtful and moving study of these characters that does not try to do too much. What I mean by this is that Zweig layers in important humanistic observations about the problems of a fascist regime and dangers of being utterly obsessed by money, but, even though the book was published after his death in 1942, it does not become a polemic. As a result, the story is universalized without being another story of horror and drudgery about Nazi oppression.

I did not like Chess Story as much as The Post-Office Girl, but I think that this is mostly a personal preference for the fuller story rather than the spareness of a novella. Chess Story is beautifully constructed and well-worth reading, making me even more excited to read Beware of Pity, which is sitting on my to-read shelf.

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I finished making my way through Steven Pinker’s, The Better Angels of our Nature and will have reactions to it later in the week. Next up, I am currently reading Dashiell Hammett’s classic noir, The Thin Man.

The Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula K. Le Guin

And I saw then again, and for good, what I had always been afraid to see, and had pretended not to see in him: that he was a woman as well as a man. Any need to explain the sources of that fear vanished with that fear; what I was left with was, at last, acceptance of him as he was. Until then I had rejected him, refused him his own reality. He had been quite right to say that he, the only person on Gethen who trusted me, was the only Gethenian I distrusted. For he was the only one who had entirely accepted me as a human being: who had liked me personally and given me personal loyalty: and who therefore had demanded of me an equal degree of recognition, of acceptance.

I am late come to the works of Ursula K. Le Guin having once starting–and giving up on–her fantasy books. This year I returned to her books, first with The Dispossessed and now The Left Hand of Darkness. Like The Dispossessed, I found Left Hand (published 1969) to be a somewhat raw book, but powerful, thoughtful and, in many ways, Important.

The planet Gethen (also known as Winter) is perpetually in the grip of an ice age, with bountiful fish, but few mammals and no birds. The hominids who live on Winter adapted to the environment, both in terms of their resistance to extreme cold and in other adaptations that are designed to ensure their survival. The habitable zone on Winter, such that it is, is divided into multiple political units, with the two most important being the kingdom of Karhide and the country of Orgoreyn. The former is a decentralized state subdivided into small landholdings ruled over by local lords and family units; the latter is a centralized and centrally planned state run by a central council and shadowy agencies. Neighbors, Karhide and Orgoreyn usually allow trade across the border, provided that one has the proper paperwork for Orgoreyn, but are diametrically opposed. There are, however, some people in Karhide who believe that the kingdom should be somewhat more like Orgoreyn and are willing to go to great lengths to make that happen.

Into this uncertain political situation enters Genly Ai, an envoy from the Ekumen, the political organization of the planets with human species on them dedicated to facilitating trade in cultural, intellectual, and technological innovations. He lands first at Karhide, but his situation soon becomes endangered when a coup against his primary benefactor, Prime Minister Estraven, forces both men (independently) to flee to Orgoreyn. Of course, this change is not necessarily for the better.

Genly’s “otherness” is particularly pronounced on Winter because he is what they would call “a pervert”–that is, someone whose anatomy is like that on earth. Gethenian are what Genly terms ambisexual. Their normal state of being is neither male nor female, but with the potential to be one or the other. Once a month they go into a state of “kemmer,” hormonal arousal that becomes further excited by contact with others in kemmer. (As a hormonal change, kemmer can be manipulated through artificial hormones, but this is generally frowned upon.) Kemmer changes their anatomy to express either male or female anatomy, with no predisposition to one or the other, and only remains in this state if, when in female anatomy, the Gethenian becomes pregnant. Genly is a pervert because he is “always in kemmer.”

At its heart The Left Hand of Darkness is driven by elements of thriller as Genly races from one place to another, one step ahead of forces that will destroy him, and the relationship between Genly and Estraven, but the details of Gethenian anatomy strike me as the most important part of the book. Le Guin, through Genly’s eyes, asks how this anatomy fundamentally shapes Gethenian cultures and how the different political units exploit their anatomy for their own ends, insidious and otherwise. Moreover, Genly is forced to reckon with his own preconceptions about gender in terms of how he addresses people. For instance, he frequently defaults to calling Gethenians “he” and “son,” while also judging those he considers effeminate, despite those terms being blatantly wrong.

The Left Hand of Darkness could have been a viable story set on earth, but the way Le Guin weaves in anthropology, mythology, and mysticism makes it exceptional. This book is a powerful meditation on duality, in terms of countries, gender, cultures, and sexualities. It is optimistic about the possibilities for empathy and understanding, but keenly aware of the tragedies that must be overcome to get to that point.

My copy of The Left Hand of Darkness also had an introductory essay about the nature of writing, reading, and science fiction. In this essay Le Guin argues that people don’t read science fiction and dismiss it as “escapist” actually find it “depressing” because they consider it extrapolative and must arrive “somewhere between the gradual extinction of human liberty and the total extinction of terrestrial life.” Le Guin denies that her novel extrapolates from the present, saying:

Predictions are uttered by prophets (free of charge); clairvoyants (who usually charge a fee and are therefore more honored in their day than prophets); and by futurologists (salaried). Prediction is the business of prophets, clairvoyants, and futurologists. It is not the business of novelists. A novelist’s business is lying.

The essay continues to talk about mistaken trust in artists of various sorts, and refers to reading as a form of “insanity. It is an essay that may be argued against, without a doubt, but it also performs the function of a good essay: it is provokes discussion.

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I just finished Stefan Zweig’s posthumous novella Chess Story. Next up, I am still working my way through Better Angels of our Nature and am planning to start Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man later today.

Last Words From Montmarte – Qui Miaojin

Last Words From Montmarte is far afield from my usual reading tastes. It is an experimental epistolary novel published posthumously that is part memoir, serving as a suicide note for Qui Miaojin, and deals substantially with lesbian sexuality. Last Words is necessarily a deeply intimate novel that investigates the emotional anxiety of the narrator, while leaving the other characters as sort of unknowable phantoms and sources of the anxiety as the narrators wants to become intimate with them. Nor is there a strong plot, since the author tells the reader that the letters can be read in any order. As a result, the story–by which I mean the gradual understanding of the narrator’s psyche–unfolds more than progresses, skipping between Paris, Tokyo, and Taipei, and being by turns wrenching, gleeful, depressed, and anxious.

As a technical piece of literature, there was a lot I appreciated about Last Words and I came away understanding why many people connect with it so deeply even though I did not. I generally do not like novels that are this interior unless they also have something else that I can grab onto, largely because unless i feel some sort of kinship with the person being examined, I have a hard time getting into the story. There were moments in this book that I could relate with, particularly to being an outsider, but it has been a long time since I have been even remotely this lovesick and so many of the other defining characteristics of both the characters and the social circles were so far beyond my personal experience that I often ended up almost forcing myself to read the book in a way that was not altogether enjoyable. As noted, though, this is more a “me” problem than a problem with Last Words which is not meant necessarily to explain anything to the reader so much as to give an emotional jolt. That emotional jolt just didn’t land as cleanly as it might have for me for all those different reasons.

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Next up, I am currently reading Stephen Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature and just started Ursula K. le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness.

The Conquerors – André Malraux

I can still hear the prattle of democracy at dinner, the trite formulas, ridiculous in Europe, harbored here like rusty old steamers, again I see the solemn enthusiasm they ignite among all these men.

My deepest hostilities aren’t so much against possessors as against the stupid principles that they spout to defend their possessions.

I finished The Conquerors a couple of weeks ago, so what follows are half-digested, half-forgotten thoughts on this book by Charles de Gaulle’s Minister of Information and Minister of Cultural Affairs. My copy, and therefore this write-up, consists of two distinct parts: the novel, published in 1928, and a reflective essay on the topics of the novel, published in 1949.

The Conquerors is a novelization of the 1925-1927 Cantonese revolution in Hong Kong. The unnamed narrator is a Frenchman who traveled by way of Vietnam to meet his old friend Garine working as a propaganda officer for Mikhail Borodin, the Russian agent in Hong Kong. Despite nominally working toward the same end, there is tension between Garine and Borodin since the former is a true believer in the cause, while the latter is primarily working to advance the soviet political agenda. Yet, as these two men with European connections play out their drama, there is a larger conflict between Chinese revolutionaries, Chinese warlords, and the Europeans in Hong Kong. Garine and Borodin both intend to use the Chinese to accomplish their objectives, with a powerful pacifist (compared to Ghandi) and a young anarchist. The situation in Hong Kong deteriorates under repeated assaults from European capital and Chinese arms before ending on an ambiguous note.

The Conquerors is something of an odd book in that it is utterly driven by the plot, being told in chronological narration with a date and time for nearly every entry, while not actually being about the plot at all. The plot of The Conquerors is a vehicle for Malraux to talk about issues of colonialism and revolution, which he opposes and favors, in that order. Despite the flatness of some of the Chinese characters and the problems posed by the large number of Chinese factions, Malraux is most critical of European influence in the revolution since both capitalists and communists are, ultimately seeking to effect some sort of colonial project.

Where the novel The Conquerors ultimately fell flat, the concluding essay was a thoughtful critique of Western Civilization. Among other issues, he talks about how Russia is in some ways a European country and, in others, wholly un-European. In the conclusion to this essay he wrote:

When was France great? When she did not take refuge in France. She is universalist. To the rest of the world the greatness of France is much more the cathedrals or the Revolution than Louis XIV. Some countries, like Britain — and it may be to their honor–are the greater the more alone. France has never been greater than when she spoke for all mankind, and that is why her silence is heard so poignantly today.

Of course, this passage struck a particular note in the wake of the recent American election. There were individual scenes in The Conquerors that were excellent, but the book as a whole did not leave enough of an impression that I can remember it well several weeks later. This passage in the concluding essay did.

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Next up, I have finished Last Words from Montmarte, a posthumous, postmodern, epistolary novel by Qiu Miaojin, a Taiwanese lesbian author. I am also in the middle of reading Stephen Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature, but am up to my neck in grading and editing right now so have only just started Ursula K. le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness

Reflections on being an election judge

4:30: “Do you work here? Cuz I’m ready to vote!”

About four weeks ago now, several hours before America went to the polls to start voting for a new president, I drove out to rural Boone County Missouri to finish preparing a polling place. I know some people spent the day watching election returns, but I spent the entire day at that polling location, without cell phone reception or any sense of what was going on in the world until I got into my car at about 9 PM central. Until then, I had had about fifteen minutes of downtime in the previous fifteen hours.

This was my first experience as an election judge. Almost two months before election day I received a mass email from the Boone County Clerk’s office putting out a call for more election judges. The county pays judges some money, including three training sessions, setup of the polling place, and one very long election day. I decided that it might be a good experience for me to sit on the other side of that desk and alleviate some of my anxiety so, since I don’t teach on Tuesdays, I signed up. Then, the week before the election, I received another email asking for volunteers to work in rural Boone County, and I agreed thinking that I am actually closer to most of the rural sites than to the ones downtown. Naturally, I was assigned to the polling station most distant from me while still being in the county.

I went out to the polling station on Monday to help set up, but, had to leave before it was done in order to get back to campus for an appointment. It was raining on election day when I woke up at 3 AM so I could leave home by 4 and arrive by 4:30. On my way into the polling place the first voter asked me when she could vote.

5:47: “Oh, yay! Voters!”

Voting began in Boone County at 6 AM and we had a line at 5:45. The average wait in our line (we were told) was more than twenty minutes, and that was a) in a rural district, b) with three check-in stations, c) with an efficient system that only took about a minute to check each person in, and d) with people who didn’t bother waiting in the morning and came back later in the day. The station I worked at checked in more than five hundred voters over the course of the day, and until the poll closed, the line only really disappeared twice, once for about five minutes around 10 AM and once around 1 PM for an hour. It was in that latter period that everyone managed to snag our only break of the day to grab a bite to eat.

Every ballot handed out had to be signed off on by election judges with two different party affiliations. In practice this meant that our seven workers for three check-in stations worked in pairs, with one person roaming to collect pens, assist voters, and operate our single electronic voting machine. I liked my coworkers, all of whom were from the area around the polling station and therefore some knew each other already. The most memorable of the coworkers reminded me, in the best way possible, of a young, male Leslie Knope: a young, outgoing, true-believer in the civic process.

Voter: “You need to have a little patience on a day like this.”
Voter: “Where’s my America gone?!”

Working at a polling station for a presidential election is, in my admittedly limited experience, an exercise in managing chaos. There are dozens of small, repetitive and redundant steps taken throughout the day and hundreds of repeated interactions. You are a custodian, secretary, bureaucrat, and customer service rep all in one, regulating and managing a flood of people, most of whom are patient and understanding, but some of whom are primed to be aggrieved.

There were problems, of course, including several very frustrated voters and instances where we had to put them on the phone with the main office to resolve the issue. Certainly, with experience, we could have improved the process a bit, but, I am confident in saying that there were no shenanigans with the vote in our little corner of Missouri.

They need to call it tonight so I can wear the broach that I made.

Being an election judge was an interesting and largely rewarding experience. It reminded me of the the stories about being in a foxhole where any disagreements with the people around you go away in favor of just trying to survive. The people I worked with at the election station were lovely and most of the voters who waited in line were good sports about the inconvenience so long as they got to vote. I was disappointed with the outcome of the election, but not this experience. I expect that I will be working elections again in the future.