Enumerator insights

After 7½ years of retirement, I returned to the workplace part-time for two months this year.

The job was supposed to begin in May and run through the summer but got pushed back to August and then abruptly cut off at the end of September.

I was a federal agent.

The private identifying details we recorded are sworn to secrecy – or the equivalent, for those of us who follow Scripture and refuse to take oaths. But I’m still trying to put the experience into perspective.

For nearly 40 years, I’ve worked through the available Census files in my genealogical research, as you’ll see in the posts on my Orphan George blog. It’s become something of a specialty for me, along with the Quaker minutes. I mean, it’s how I learned that Grandpa married the girl next door. There’s also one set of ancestors who were recorded twice in 1860 but with enough differences to make me suspect there were two Jacob Ehrstines closely related – one detail in the 1870 Census cleared that up. And I have one ancestor who shaved another year or two off her age every decade, though I have no idea whether it was intentional or out of ignorance, considering that Quakers didn’t celebrate birthdays.

So I set forth in part out of gratitude for those earlier enumerators. The first ones, incidentally, were federal marshals. This was that important.

What surprised me as I hit the streets and knocked on doors on behalf of the Census Bureau was how physically hard it becomes – bending over an iPhone placed on a clipboard to input data quickly had my back aching, especially. For a dozen years, I managed to work a double shift every Saturday as a newspaper editor, yet here I was pushing my limits when it got close to five hours a day. (Wimp!) Six really maxed it. An article in the Washington Post enlightened me that I wasn’t alone here, so I couldn’t blame it all on age.

I am surprised by how many Americans don’t know what a census is or that it’s required every ten years or that they don’t want to be recorded.

Well, I now also have a clearer understanding of why one household might disappear ten years later but reappear again in a subsequent Census. You know, be there in 1800 and 1820 but not 1810.

I am also surprised how much of my brain space got wrapped in a job again. You know, replaying cases and wondering how I might have done them differently. This was supposed to be something I could let go of at quitting time. Not so, though.

Inputting data in an app on an iPhone still strikes me as tedious. You might have guessed I pretty much hate texting, except as an alternative to an actual phone call. (Emails seem to be my preferred form of communicating these days.) How do kids do it, texting with their thumbs? Or are their exchanges all typos?

Oh, yes, another confession. I’ve typed for nearly six decades now. Self-taught, earned my livelihood with it. Written whole books, even. But ask me to re-create a keyboard from memory, and I have no clue where the individual letters of the alphabet are. The memory is all in my fingers, not my head. Seriously.

So I can’t imagine keyboarding with my thumbs. As I was saying about the kids? Besides, thumbs are awfully fat for those tiny screens. My dry fingers had enough trouble connecting, even before getting to any issue of accuracy.

In my rounds, I had a few near falls (including one wooden step that wasn’t nailed down anymore), a couple of dogs who could have turned nasty, some close calls in traffic, but emerged unscathed.

Some of the most enjoyable interviews turned out to be those where I could put my very limited Spanish to work. Other enumerators had backed off, so I guessed it was up to me, and somehow, we got the required data, often with a lot of laughter. Yes, I made some funnies.

The best part of the job, though, was meeting people who, for the most part, were warm, friendly, helpful. I have a much clearer understanding of the neighborhoods around me.

Would I do it again?

No, I’ll be too feeble – or feebleminded – in another decade.

But maybe you’d want to give it a crack.

Speaking Truth to power

We’ve heard the phrase a lot lately, but few know that it originated as a Quaker expression.

Most of us Quakers, or members of the Society of Friends, assumed it was one of those many great expressions from the beginning of the movement, back in the upheavals of the mid-1600s.

Not so, it turns out. Nor even the 1700s or 1800s. It’s much more recent than that.

The expression originated with a 1955 pamphlet published by the American Friends Service Committee titled “Speak Truth to Power: a Quaker Search for an Alternative to Violence,” which promoted pacifism.

Still, it rings true to the early Quakers, who spoke boldly with an alternative Christianity that  brought many changes to British and American society. The faith and its practice went far beyond mere religion. It extended through one’s relationships, including labor, possessions, business, politics, education, leisure, and nearly everything else.

For them, Truth was Christ, so speaking Truth to those in authority was to challenge the rulers and oppressors, countering them with the greater life and dominion of Jesus.

This goes way, way beyond being factually correct.

It’s more like invoking what others might do when they form a sign of the Cross when facing a demon.

Let’s not forget that authority.

Looking afresh at a personal foundation of reading

Living in the family I do, my TBR stack of books is well larded with Christmas and birthday presents – things others think I’ll like or should at least tackle, as well as volumes they’ve already enjoyed and wish to tempt me. I’m not complaining, mind you, though I can be perplexed by their choices, at least until I’m moved to open the cover and dig in.

Sometimes it takes me several years to get around to that, which was the case with The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings, by Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski.

The tome surveys the Inklings, a literary circle established at Oxford University by the likes of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, an affiliation that lasted their lifetimes and paralleled the more progressive Bloomsbury elite.

As I read of the budding authors’ early years and passions, my eyes were opened to how different their reading habits and expectations were from mine. They were steeped in a desire to recover a mythos of elves and other realms arising in ancient Britain but lost over time to the teachings from the Continent. There was also a fascination with invented alphabets and languages and secret communications. In contrast, apart from an early round of Tom Sawyer and English shipwrecks, my tastes ran to non-fiction – biographies, histories, and science, especially – and to visual arts and classical music. I still love to read maps, by the way. As for language, English still holds plenty of room for exploration, and Spanish and French are challenging enough.

Fiction returned to my lineup my senior year of high school via an essentially political route – Animal Farm, Brave New World, and 1984 on the leading edge. Besides, that was the time when I was finally getting serious about writing and editing, too.

In short, I read to learn things, and still do, for that matter. Rarely would I admit to reading for pleasure, as such.

But the first years after graduating brought a change, including The Lord of the Rings (which struck me as a rehashing of Wagner’s Ring Cycle material), Samuel Johnson, and Virginia Woolf before getting to Tom Wolfe, Vonnegut, and Kerouac and, after college, Brautigan.

My preference soon settled on contemporary and American, here and now, even if I have a fondness for baroque twists and long sentences.

I have to admit having little in common with the Inklings. Even our religious leanings veer in opposite directions – their thick Catholic and Anglican wrappings versus my Zen and Quaker ascetic.

~*~

At that point, while cleaning a very dusty bookshelf, I chanced upon Becky Gould Gibson’s Need-Fire, a poetry chapbook elaborating the life of Hild, a 7th century abbess who founded a monastery for men and women in Whitby, North Yorkshire but at the time Northumberland. It was a time when some women had more authority in the Catholic church than would be the case later. That, in turn, led me to learn more of the history of Britain in that period, including the reality that much of the land was openly pagan perhaps into the 9th century, much later than I’d assumed.

With another leap of thought, I realized that much of what I’ve found puzzling in the English folksongs, mummers’ plays, and the Abbots Bromley and Morris dances  I’ve encountered through Boston Revels is thinly veiled pagan tradition living on, part of the deeper culture of the land and its earlier peoples.

Well, as we say, the plot thickens.

My next question returns to these shores and an awareness of what this land means to its inhabitants. For me, that’s a blending of science, economics in the broadest sense, spiritual awareness, and the arts.

So how would you define the grounding of your own reading habits and interests? Has it changed over time?

One more little seasonal thing

Anybody else lucky enough to live in a place where you can buy unpasteurized apple cider?

So that you can buy two gallons at a time, as we sometimes do, and put one aside to start turning fizzy while we drink the other fresh? That second one stays sweet, unlike the pasteurized, which go sour, and is quite the treat. You know, with a little kick and fine bubbles.

Our usual source is a small roadside enterprise across the river in Eliot, Maine – King Tut’s, run by one line of the Tuttle clan, open weekends only from early autumn till Christmas or New Year’s, depending on the supply. They’ve been at it since 1903.

Other folks may be putting pumpkin in just about everything from beer to doughnuts as their autumn observance, but for us, cider’s the thing. Along with a few indulgences with pears, the ones that are properly ripened with no hint of graininess. (Poached makes for a very elegant breakfast or brunch.)

I think it was Confucius who insisted on no food out of season or place, which is fine in theory but impractical in regions like New England or the Upper Midwest. Still, it’s something I follow when I can, starting with the dandelion greens and asparagus in spring, glorying in nearly daily tomato sandwiches in August and September, and culminating in the brussels sprouts we harvest at Thanksgiving and Christmas.

What do you indulge in along these lines?

The U.S has no conservative party

I glanced upon an article about the importance of a conservative party in governing a country, that it keeps a nation from spiraling into chaos, and I realized that’s the problem today.

For too long, America has had no conservative party.

Rather than upholding the institutions and values of the past, what we’ve instead had in recent decades is a growing assault akin to Huns and Visagoths.

Conservatives, by definition preserve. Barbarians, anarchists, and bullies destroy.

Before I go off on a long rant, I’ll just leave you with the question of just what, precisely, today’s so-called conservatives are saving for all of us, not just the privileged few. Racism? Inequality? Injustice?

 

A new kind of doctor’s house call

When I was a rug rat, family physicians would still visit patients in their homes. The docs even carried little black bags, as I remember, along with a different demeanor than we see today.

And then all of that became history. The front-line medical personnel even became referred to as primary caregivers or physician assistants or nurse practitioners rather than docs.

The Covid-19 outbreak, though, has it returning with a twist. The medico in question, even a specialist, is now calling some patients at home. Yup, on the phone. Voice, not texting. I’d say dialing them up, except nobody has a dial phone anymore.

And that’s what’s happening with my latest cardiologist checkup.

OK, I did have the echocardiogram at the hospital lab, so he has those results to work with. I’m wondering if he’s going to want my latest weight and blood pressure readings. I do have the home kit for that. There will be no listening to my breathing and other internal sounds.

Well, I’m also told of psychotherapists who are conducting their sessions over the phone, though I have trouble imagining that going very deep. Dunno. There are just certain things that come up in face-to-face interactions that don’t happen by telephone.

What’s with all the hoarding?

Where I live, any weather forecast of an approaching nor’easter, big snow, or deteriorating hurricane is enough to prompt a run on all of a supermarket’s milk, canned soup, and bread, usually in that order. It’s idiotic, I know, but it is a New England tradition for many households.

Somehow, though, those grocery shelves are always reloaded by the next day or two. Not to worry.

What we’re seeing with Covid-19, however, is something different. I mean, toilet paper? At first, I thought it was a joke, considering all the BS emanating from the hat-guy and the mess we’ve been hoping to clean up through the last three years. But no, not quite that, even if it does make for an easy-to-connect symbol of what’s passing for leadership.

I’m not sure where this one originated, but my old roommate from the early ’70s sent it my way.

Face it, people are scared.

Scared of something they can’t see, a virus.

They want something to hold on to, a sense of security or invincibility.

No wonder sanitizer suddenly became a valued commodity.

As “it” spread – the virus and the hoarding – the dried bean shelves were soon also emptied of something most Americans normally wouldn’t eat on a bet. (When’s the last time you had bean soup? It raises a specter of soup kitchens and poverty in the Great Depression, right?) So leave the chick peas (garbanzos), lentils, turtle beans, and the like for those of us who really cook with them, will ya? Store after store, ransacked.

‘Fess up. How are using beans in your kitchen? Which ones? Kidney beans in chili count, by the way.

Add to missing in action list all those ramen soup packets, which do reflect changing tastes in the USA. Besides, they’re easy to cook, even for a 10-year-old, so I can understand why they’ve been raided. But the sriracha? Maybe we should spread a rumor that it’s Chinese. (Its roots are Thai or Burmese, actually, but why quibble?)

Coffee and beer supplies, meanwhile, seem to be holding up, at least here.

We’re told of massed shoppers queued up in lines winding around one Costco building in California days on end. We just don’t have one within an hour of home, so we haven’t witnessed that phenomenon for ourselves.

We do know of one independent grocery, however, that’s being shunned – the Chinese one down the road. That’s a shame, for their food’s notable. You want fresh fish? They know their stuff. Where do you think we first found ramen and Sriracha and tofu, anyway?

Well, in all of this, we can add another phrase to our common usage: shelf-stable items.

What empty shelves and missing items have surprised you the most?