inverted quarantines, mosquitoes & the common man in delhi

This post has been some time in the making, ever since Raul Pacheco-Vega introduced me to Andrew Szasz’s concept of an ‘inverted quarantine,’ defined further below, and fabulous Manpreet Singh and i started kicking around how the idea applied to our lives in Delhi. This week, a few events, including a desperate effort to stay awake to fend off jetlag, have conspired to help this post come together.


i’ll start with the idea of a quarantine, since it has such a delightful etymological origin. The phrase comes from the Italian for ’40,’ the number of days a ship needed to stay in the Venetian harbor before its booty or crew came ashore, a practice put in place during the Black Death of the later 1300s. Specifically, the ships subjected to quarantine (or forced isolation) were those returning from plague-stricken countries. The idea, as Szasz elaborates, implies the following set-up: we (Venetians) are mostly in a healthy environment, from which (potentially) diseased individuals need to be kept out. It is a collective (if enforced) action to preserve the health of the environs and, therefore, the people living in it.


An inverted quarantine is a response to a reversed scenario: an unhealthy environment in which individuals wish to stay healthy. Worse, these individuals have become “fatalistically resigned to it being a dangerous world” (2006). The response is a middle-class or elite response (in general) with two components intended to isolate individuals and their households/immediate environments from harm:

  • An individual response: Despite ‘the environment’ (air & water, in particular) having a generally public good quality, those constructing inverted quarantines are engaged in a response that “is individualistic in both goal and method.”
  • A consumeristic response: A sense that the way to isolate oneself and one’s family from harm requires the purchase of specialized commodities, such as bottled water.

It is the latter point, in particular, that converts a citizen (a political actor) into a consumer, who exercises a certain form of exit (to the market) rather than (political/public) voice, thus functioning as a political anesthesia.


This idea of building bubbles through consumer purchases has many examples in Delhi, with bottled/canister or water filters as a prime example. The air quality in Delhi has recently taken on a similar, if (deplorably) much less wide-spread, response. If you haven’t been paying attention, the air quality in Delhi is real bad (as in, the worst by measures) and air pollution is real bad in general.


To illustrate, here is a typical workday morning for me in Delhi, which has only been made more extreme by my recent acquisition of an air quality monitor for my house.

  1. Leave the house with my air filters (n=3) running
  2. Hope that my maid (because… India) doesn’t turn off the filters during the day
  3. Wonder how much electricity I use and therefore pollution I cause running my air filters all the time. Then promptly forget about this.
  4. Wish my maid wouldn’t leave the doors open after she makes breakfast.
  5. Chuckle about how my landlords believe that the air in their small front yard is ‘fresh’ even if the rest of the city is dirty.
  6. Get into an auto-rickshaw (open-side 3-wheeler). auto.jpg
  7. Put on my fancy, Paris-ready vog mask (mine is actually plain black — but).mask
  8. Think about how i should buy masks for my mostly faithful autowalla and then wonder if he would use them (curse my non-existant Hindi).
  9. Arrive at office, where air filters are running most of the time, except during skype calls.


This is not a perfect bubble but it is certainly an attempt at insulating myself nevertheless: an inverted quarantine that i have tried to construct to protect me at home, at work, and in between. i have tried to make myself part of an air-istocracy.


And, it is worth noting that there is relatively little political action around air quality. The government has experimented with car-reduction measures but, at least anecdotally, folks were far more interested in whether this reduced their commute time than whether it lowered the particulate matter in their air.


The idea of an inverted quarantine, as presented by Szasz, rests on both the individual and the consumer response. Given both my research and the current outbreaks of dengue and chikungunya and other viral fevers in Delhi, i have been thinking about mosquitoes and whether the concept applies — both whether mosquitoes constitute the sort of unsafe air/water/land of which Szasz writes and also whether the individual/household response is sufficiently consumeristic to count as an inverted quaratine.


To be glib, we could lump mosquitoes and the diseases they carry in with ‘bad air’ (literally the origin of ‘malaria’) and solve the first problem.


And the idea of a consumeristic response to mosquitoes may apply to at least some of the options available. Purchasing a bednet allows me to protect my sleeping space from most night-biting mosquitoes, though we have all had the experience that one always manages to get it. Various sprays, creams, bracelets, coils, plug-ins, and electrified tennis racquets can help to ward off mosquitoes but none of them seem to keep all of them away.


There are also non-consumer responses to limiting mosquitoes and therefore mosquito-borne diseases in the confines of one’s house and grounds, such as covering or draining standing water, as recommended by the government in posters, including this one from my neighborhood:



It is not quite clear how to classify these individual / private-good responses to larger public health problems that don’t have a strictly product-based bent within a framework of inverted quarantines — but they are certainly an important type of response in India. A similar idea can be found in the constant cleaning of private spaces but the dirtiness of public spaces (as catalogued in Maximum City, inter alia), the intense faith put in ‘home [prepared] food’ as opposed to dirty and dangerous ‘outside food’ and other ideas that mix real ideas of toxins and pathogens with older ideas of purity and pollution (i believe relating to ideas of protecting oneself from social threat, as Szasz discusses).


In any case, mosquitoes, unlike air quality, are getting political attention in Delhi — or at least, people are calling out the lack of political action and the over-reliance on promoting individual preventative measures in the face of an outbreak. Mosquitoes are annoying little buggers and can (visibly) get through any inverted quarantines we might construct, so perhaps this call for more public, preventative action is not surprising.


For my thesis research in Ghana, to better understand the context in which a new malaria treatment program was being introduced, i undertook a media content analysis of how the term ‘malaria’ was deployed and discussed in online newspapers during the relevant time period. Most of the discussion was around specific malaria donations that had come in, reporting of malaria numbers at different state health facilities, or actions that the government had or would soon take around malaria prevention and ‘environmental hygiene.’ One of the presidential candidates being covered during that time was particularly concerned about environmental cleanliness and ‘filth.’


But a few mentions cast malaria as a disease of common humanity, from which neither rich nor poor could make themselves perfectly safe — an actual or imagined inverted quarantine does not exist (especially against day-biting mosquitoes). It (vulnerability to malaria, mosquitoes) was used as a political symbol of issues that affected all Ghanaians. This idea of malaria and the mosquito as threatening a common humanity — the common man — has a slightly funny resonance with the current political situation in Delhi, where the ruling Aam Aadmi Party (literally, ‘the common man party’) has come under fire for insufficient public health action (rightly or wrongly) in the face of an outbreak of mosquito-borne viral fevers.


The idea of the non-availability of inverted quarantines in the face of the biting mosquito as a source of political action deserves more attention, as does trying to shake people out of believing that their inverted quarantines against polluted air are sufficient (or indeed, that the air is something from which one requires protection) — ideally stimulating meaningful political action. Just thinking about Delhi, i am not yet convinced that measures need to be both individual and consumeristic to act as a political anesthesia. If the goal is to explain a lack of political action, then more conceptual work is needed. For example, as long as my landlords believe their front yard is fresh/unpolluted because they keep a nice garden (and others at their club start to get worried as well), it is unlikely they will be taking any political action about air pollution. Nevertheless, the idea of an inverted quarantine and how it limits public outrage and civic response seems like a useful concept for studying urban (perhaps in particular?) responses to environmental (and pathogen?) threats, not just in the US, where Szasz focuses, but far beyond.


To close with a small piece from Szasz’s 2006 presentation paper for the Sustainable Consumption and Society Conference:

Inverted quarantine is a twisted and perverse sort of environmentalism. The person who engages in it clearly recognizes that there is a problem [even if misdiagnosed?], is in fact quite distressed by the problem, and intent on doing something about it. Such a person, however, is deeply pessimistic about real change, unable to imagine that things can actually improve, and therefore fatalistically resigned to it being a dangerous world.

Sounds like a lot of Dilliwallas to me.


john oliver on why context/setting matters

#lastweektonight, on mandatory minimums (video here, article with embedded video).


context is important. for instance, shouting the phrase, “i’m coming,” is fine when catching a bus but not ok when you’re already on the bus.”


My Day Today: Dry Cleaning

[on phone, while in auto on the way to work]

<e: “Hi dry cleaner. I had to leave home for office, so I left one dress hanging on my door. Can you please pick it up?”

Dry Cleaner: “Sure, I will send a boy to pick it up.”


– 10 minutes later –


Dry Cleaner: “The boy is standing outside your door and says no one is answering.”

Me: “Yes, I had  to leave for office, so I left one dress hanging on my door. Can he please take it?”

Dry Cleaner: “Yes madam.”


– 3 minutes later –


Dry Cleaner: “The boy says there is only one dress.”

Me: “Yes, there is one dress hanging on the door. Can he please take it to clean?”

Dry Cleaner: “Yes madam.”

Service and perseverance and convenience, yes.

Straightforward, no.

nimboo pani: challenges and triumphs

there has been some complaint from some quarters that i have not recently provided any update about my life, reserving blog posts for slightly more wonky topics.

this post will be a small antidote.*

in delhi, one way of dealing with the energy-sapping heat is nimboo pani — literally “lemons water” but in actuality lemonade that is salty and possibly spicy/masala-ed in addition to sweet. (some people add mint but, of course, such frippery is not welcome in this household. i have only recently found a source for basil leaves, which is a far more sensible option.) in this salty way, nimboo pani approximates ORS and can help combat creeping dehydration, which seems to happen even if you are not noticeably sweating or doing anything at all.

i am curious as to why similarly salty lemonades did not catch-on in other hot places, for example, the southern US, which goes heavy on the sweet drinks in summer but, to my knowledge, doesn’t add salt (granted, the food may provide plenty, so things may balance out).

in any case, to celebrate having my flat nearly in order (yes, i know, people want pictures; patience is a virtue), i had a small open-house party at the beginning of july (HOT). i wanted to have nimboo pani on hand but was uncertain how to have ample drink prepared given the constraints of the refrigerator space and the need to have other drinks and food chilled as well.

one small triumph came in finding a shop that sold pre-squeezed lemon juice. nimboo (lemon) here are generally about golf- ball sized and the prospect of squeezing enough to quench thirst for 5+ hours was unappealing, no matter how many martha stewart points i would earn.

my first thought to dealing with the space issue was to make a lot of nimboo pani in advance and then freeze it. this seemed briefly promising until i thought about using salt to melt ice in the winter. this led to a string of probably unnecessarily dramatic texts to pop of the nature “I HAVE  A CHEMISTRY CRISIS.” it was agreed that freezing salty water would be difficult. (it was also likely, tacitly agreed that this was not a crisis.) (follow-up point, auto-correct suggested i might have meant “nimboo panic.” it does fit.)

the ice idea remained promising but how to dissolve all the ingredients on the spot? a friend (thanks, @urmy_shukla!) pointed out that sugar was particularly difficult to mix, given the temperature of the drink. simple syrup presented itself as a solution (ha!). so, in the end, i had frozen lemon cubes and frozen ice tea cubes (in hopes of nimboo pani palmers (go deacs) catching on, but must admit that brown ice has limited appeal, especially in a place where water quality and sanitation are such a serious concerns. perhaps green tea represents a future way forward.) so, people could drop lemon cubes into their glasses of water, which worked out well. i had bowls of rock salt, ground cumin, and ground ginger out so that people could salt and spice their drinks as per their own taste buds. and, i made plain and cardamom simple syrup, which veered slightly towards caramelized but seemed to be ok. this set-up was also good but there is at least one person in our midst who does not agree that drinks should be salty or spicy ever. i may have needed to add a little instruction on how sweet simple syrup is, as @sg402 discovered with VERY sweet nimboo pani.

anyway, party was a success, make-your-own nimboo pani seemed to be a success — so, the world’s problems are nearly solved. basil simple syrup will be pursued in the future.

please do be impressed that i smuggled two public health references into this post.


*a problem with blog-writing is that any word can be a rabbit hole. in typing “antidote,” i wondered if at any time “dote” was used to mean “poison,” in which case, antidote would be a sensible word. “dote” in the sense that we use it now, seems to be derived from the word for foolish. implies that dotum comes from the greek “to give,” so that antidote was “to give against.” there you go.



miss marple & an apology to india

while i have been sick, i have watched/listened to (a fairly absurd amount of) british murder mysteries, including tommy & tuppance and miss marple (including the episode in which miss marple and tuppance team up!).

on another track, there are always funny turns of phrase when working in english in india (and other places). one that always particularly tickled me was referring to “pressurizing” someone to do something, as opposed to “pressing” or “pressuring” someone into something, as i would say. it always seemed like an odd transformation of the word.

but now, thanks to miss marple,  i realize that ‘pressurizing’ was in fact a british construction, foisted at some point onto the colonies. i still think it sounds funny but at least i know where to place the blame for a goofy word.


question: why do well-educated people from sub-Saharan Africa often seem not to have taken any courses in African history?

i admit that i am working from an n of 2, purposively selected from Ghana and Nigeria. nevertheless, it seems worth asking, how is national history *not* part of the standard middle or high school curriculum, insofar as knowing history is an important part of educating citizens?

‘where the streets have no name’

that’s the title of a short article in the jan/feb 2013 atlantic— and i couldn’t think of a better one.

i have written previously about the joys of getting and giving directions in lower-income countries – specifically for research and household follow-up, although the general taxi/auto/tuk-tuk stories of trying to reach any specific location purposefully are equally fun (in hindsight).

after reading my initial post, at least one friend reminded me that people at home (in the US) aren’t always so good at directions either, too familiar with a route to think about landmarks or to remember street names, and already too accustomed to google maps & similar being able to get the job done. the atlantic article from the title, about west virginia, re-emphasizes, for one, that a lack of street names, the use of landmarks, etc, is hardly only a poor-country phenomenon – rather, that “addresses have historically been an urban commodity” and one that probably belonged to highly literate urban areas with people who moved around the city a good deal.

formalizing addresses is more important than the inconvenience of trying to find a location or getting mail delivered. it is also essential for emergency services to find you and is presumably useful for tax collection and other basic services of the state.

which brings us to the second important part of the article: west virgina relied both on 911-services and a deal with verizon to get the mapping and road-naming word underway. knowing the power and visibility of mobile companies in many low- and middle-income countries, would this not be a reasonable way  to move the task forward? of all the potential projects for m-dev (e.g. and here, h/t tom paulson), it seems to me that mapping, paying taxes, and vital registration are some of the most promising and fundamental – as well as good public-private ventures. these would be fairly top-down and possibly foucauldian projects, and may be faulted for that, but i think we need more thinking about how the state can connect with its citizens.

finally, the atlantic article also points out the fun/difficulty of coming up with that many new street names. on absurd street names presumably combined by some random generator (although the linked article points to a single woman), i think my parent’s town has to take the cake.

drive-by truckers (highway 72):

“Don’t know why they even bother putting this highway on the map
Everybody that’s ever been on it knows exactly where they’re at.”

order, power, and the importance of history – hitler in india

here’s a topic i‘ve discussed in passing for the past five years and now i suppose it is time to write on it. this article just came out, covering, roughly, hitler, gandhi, and bal thackarey in indian political discussion. i am not entirely certain of article’s claims on the extent to which admiration of hitler and dissatisfaction with gandhi are part of the same conversation. or, how much of either can be attributed to thackerey. but i have certainly witnessed both the admiration and the dissatisfaction bits. i defer to maximum city on thackerey. i leave the consideration of gandhi and the birth-rupture of the indian nation-state for others.

when i first moved to chennai, i was fairly surprised to see copies of mein kampf available for sale on the streets. this sight, in turn, heightened my surprise when speaking with even well-educated indians who had never heard of judiasm (by the way, trying to use ‘you know how buddha was a hindu…’ doesn’t quite work to explain the old testament and jesus).

this ‘what are jews?’ point is disturbing for two at least two reasons.

first, india is home to several important and old jewish communities, including in kerala and in bombay (the latter were not missed by the perpetrators of the 26 November attacks in bombay). in one of my favorite books, (indian) author amitav ghosh feels a connection with an indian slave of a jewish businessman in in an antique land, placing jews in this historical context of ancient trading between india and the mediterranean. judiasm is a part of indian history and people not knowing it points to a deeper problem in awareness about ‘others’ and even ‘self.’

second, further, this point suggests large omissions in the global history taught in schools and popularly known. actually, not just global history, but indian history as well, since subhas chandra bose reached out to, and was rebuffed by, hitler to help with independence from the british. for all of hitler’s mis/use of aryan mythology, he didn’t actually seem to think all that highly of the people of the subcontinent. one might think that sort of insult would stick.

(third, the experimentation under the nazis is a key driver of research ethics today, which is yet another avenue to learn about some of the horrors in the holocaust.)

overlooking a relatively small religious group isn’t the only aberration i’ve found – also, not having heard of poland or proclaiming that south indians are the darkest-skinned people on earth or proclaiming complete ignorance (and lack of curiousity) about the beliefs of one’s muslim next-door neighbors. again, among people with master’s degrees.

to be honest, i was surprised that the students mentioned by dilip d’souza knew hitler had committed mass, systematic murder. in my experience talking with (some! only some!)  folks in india, many admire hitler and stalin (even naming children after them) in a way completely devoid of context. as far as i can tell, they see power, authority, oratory, and the ability to impose order without knowing anything of the whole ‘invading poland’ and ‘final solution’ bits. which is precisely what makes it all alarming.

it seems to be part of a craving for order and power that makes people name children after stalin, admire hitler, and proclaim that things would be better if india were more like singapore. a problem with this is that these longings seem divorced from history and context as evidenced, in part, by never having heard of ‘jews.’ it’s kind of hard to imagine what sort of instruction could teach about hitler without mentioning jews, gypsies, homosexuals, and so on. (yes, i know that sexuality and homosexuality in india are whole other cans of worms.)

of course, trying to cross the street in india – and seeing the messiness and corruption of democracy everywhere – everyone has an occasional longing for someone to impose order. the impulse for a philosopher-king, or a benevolent dictator, or someone to nicely just make decisions and get things done have been popular in the past and even now. but, as churchill said, democracy is still the best thing going given the options. sen has certainly commented on the non-need of strong-arm values to bring about development in asia and elsewhere.

democracy relies on having informed citizens – a civil civil society (e.g. here and one of my favorite diatribes, toward the end, here). has done since rome. will always do. this suggests we all have a resposibility in being informed and helping to inform.

in india, in the US, in a lot of places, we need to do better with our history, current affairs, and civics lessons. incomplete histories are dangerous things. it is not just those who don’t learn their history that are condemned to repeat it but also those who half-learn their history.

history is full of imperfect people that can teach us both how we should do things and how not to do things. we should know about both sides of past leaders. in the US ,we may largely equate hitler with evil and the fight against him as the last war we so clearly had a moral obligation to fight. anne frank is more or less required reading and we’ve seen cabaret or life is beautiful (the latter i had to watch before heading off to undergrad). this can make it all the more alarming when we hear people praise hitler or the nazi movement more generally.

some of the horrors of nazi germany may not seem so singular to those in colonies more recently gaining their independence. with good reason, and as we all should, people in india and elswhere learn and feel that the brits and americans have been plenty destructive in their own ways. this is certainly true. but hitler is a long way past imperfect and destructive. anyone looking to praise his oratory and authority needs to be fully cognizant of that.

(small addendum, 19 july 2013:

(19 feb 2014: from @urmy_shukla: as she notes, strangely written but gets at the odd trend, which was yet again a topic of conversation following someone pulling out a swastik-ed bandana this weekend at ragasthan.)

diwali and drugs – lessons from drug sales in india

as, you know, possibly from watching The Colbert Report, it’s dwali. as stephan and wikipedia note, diwali is the festival of lights or lamps. 

being in india – or at least chennai – however, one might be hard-pressed to think that it was not the festival of sound (also, sweet pongal).  firecrackers – or ‘crackers’ – play a large role. at all hours. regardless of any noise ordinances. regardless of whether my parents thought i was under assault when talking to me on the phone. seriously, if you know a war vet that still jumps at loud noises, please avoid indian cities during diwali. dr. dischord and the awful dynne would be so pleased.

so it was (ok, and because of a hard mattress) that i went out in search of sleeping pills. up till that point, i had not needed to actually purchase drugs in india. since part of my background is in private drug sellers, i was fairly confident i would be able to get something that would get me through the exploding nights of the rest of diwali. the private drug-retail market in india is fairly infamous for being unregulated – or, ‘the free-est market’ as (many) people thought was a funny joke. imagine my surprise, then, when at drug shop after drug shop, sellers heard my request, smiled sheepishly, asked for my presciption and, when i could not produce one, refused to sell the pills to me.

 i finally found one shop at which the vendor, after looking around furtively, cut off some pills for a blister pack, stuck them in a little paper bag, and sent me off. i didn’t actually know what i had been given, so worked to reconstruct the letters visible on the back of the blister pack with my dad over the phone (no internet in chennai apt – this was 2007). i had some sort of anti-anxiety meds.

i tried asking around after that as to why my mission had been much more difficult than expected. the few non-‘i don’t know’ answers i got had nothing to do with fear of state regulation of pharmaceuticals but, rather, social censure. socially, people seemed to link sleeping pills, anti-depressents, and similar drugs with attempting to commit suicide. it was the community backlash from potentially being implicated in abetting a suicide attempt to which drug vendors were responding.

besides trying a few other times to buy sleeping pills and having difficulity, i haven’t researched this issue with any particular diligence. but, if true, it may suggest ways to work on getting drug vendors to behave appropriately, even if the formal regulatory system isn’t likely to catch up any time soon.

getting out the vote in columbus

I made a very last-minute decision to go to Columbus, Ohio for the get-out-the-vote effort for the few days before the election and while I am still in a zombie-like, sleep-deprived and fast-food filled state, I am very glad I did. Our ‘turf’ was in Franklin County and we worked in predominantly African-American, low-income areas. There were far, far more foreclosures and vacant houses, deadbolts even on screendoors, and aggressive dogs (coupled with a far lesser amount of aggressive fencing) than I had imagined – in short, for a city that in my mind is OSU, it looked an awful like Detroit and Taylor, MI, where my Grandmolly used to live.

Our (vans of Harvard & MIT grad students) job in the two days leading up to the election and on “E Day” was to get to likely Obama supporters who were not as likely to actually make it out to vote. Most of the work of persuasion about who to vote for was abandoned by that point – save for a slight scripted plug for Obama’s auto industry intervention – so most of our knocking was on sympathetic, if misinformed, doors. The micro-targeting wasn’t perfect but it was pretty impressive. If I had to make one suggestion, it would be to do more with GPS so that the ‘walksheets’ could be ordered in a logical walking pattern. We all caught on pretty quickly but at least my first time out consisted of a lot of inefficiency and back-tracking. We had a script and a continuously rotating supply of literature to fasten, hang, or stick to doors of those not home. Our main goal was to make sure folks knew where and when to vote and what they needed to bring with them.

And, gracious, for the most targeted state in the Union, a lot of people did not know when and where to vote. On my first afternoon out – Sunday – very few people were actually at home but, finally, Savannah answered the door. She answered the door wrapped in a bed-sheet. She was pretty sure she would be able to vote at work. Over the course of the week, we met all kinds of people who thought they could vote up till Friday, had already voted at the pantry three weeks back, and so on. We also heard about robocalls that told them that if they had a parking ticket or something else on the record, they were not allowed to vote. In the end, there really wasn’t a replacement for the face-to-face conversation for information and encouragement.

They took good care of us at our staging location, which was in some sort of unoccupied office building with no heat and only one toilet for highly caffeinated and cold women. They had space heaters but between those, coffeemakers, powerstrips for charging phones, etc, we kept tripping the circuits and had to finally introduce an only-one-plug-per-wall rule. There was a lot of food, often homemade lasagna or casserole in big silver foil trays. One of the older African-American women helping organization the station carefully explained to me how she had made the casserole without meat – because, she had heard that there were some people who did not eat meat. Meanwhile, another woman made gluten-free cookies to bring in and the older African-American woman nearly fell out of her chair at the concept – ‘You mean cookies without flour?!?’

Our knocking schedule was one sweep by every house on our list on Sunday, encouraging early voting and providing Election Day info. Then, Monday, we did another sweep, focusing on Election Day. On Tuesday, we did three passes by all houses on our list, stopping only when we were convinced that had actually already voted, either by absentee ballot or early voting or simply earlier in the day. Some people were fairly shocked – is an, you guys have been here every day this week. “Yes, and we are going to keep coming back until you vote.” It wasn’t enough just for them to say they voted, we wanted to know where, how were the lines, where was their sticker. Fortunately, most people were fairly good natured, although several didn’t seem keen to open the door and instead just yelled through the window or from behind the door (including one genuine ‘who dat is?’ response to my knocking). And, there were some sad moments, as in ‘Is Michael home?’ ‘No.’ ‘Oh, will you see him today?’ ‘No, Michael’s been in jail for three years.’ Or “No, I haven’t seen Michael in weeks, I don’t know where he is.’

Oh. Well, if Michael comes home today, can you encourage him to vote? Here’s a leaflet.

As a side note, knocking on lots of doors – loudly and often repeatedly – hurts after a while and especially in the dry cold air. There were lots of paper cuts from the literature and bruised knuckles and experiments with alternative knocking techniques.

Anyway, our first evening out for dinner while we are still bedazzled and be-stickered with Obama gear, we were approached by a nice lady who was one of these rumored-to-exist undecided voters. It really came down to abortion; she was, by most of the rest of her positions, probably a textbook Obama supporter. She was staunchly Catholic; her just-ordained deacon husband waved from across the restaurant. I am not sure if she quite realized that she had stumbled onto a table of policy geeks and folks who had all recently read Friedman’s article on ‘why I am pro-life’ (also, commentary, here) and wielded similar arguments. The premise is that if you believe in the sanctity of life, you should be in it for the whole lifespan and should be generally against war and capital punishment and other ways of increasing constraints on healthy, happy, and long lives. It is a slam against the cognitive dissonance that must be maintained to care so desperately about life right up until it comes out of the mother’s body, at which point it can be ignored until it is potentially grandma facing a death panel. And, of the course, the cognitive dissonance in maintaining that the government’s hands should be kept off everything except things you don’t like. It is, overall, plea for consistency, coherence, and compassion in positions.

Our new friend was a very reasonable woman who is pro-life in all its senses – against capital punishment, against war – and just wanted to have a real talk about an issue that was important to her but had been turned into a polarized sound/image-byte-off. She told us about the floods of commercials and placards in town that showed – literally, graphically – abortion as fetus murder. She was able to laugh about the seeming absurdity of the image of all of us coming over from Boston/Cambridge with the intent of supporting or carrying out fetus-murder, as though that is what a ‘pro-choice’ crusader would do. We (it was about 8 to 1 in the conversation; she was a good sport) also raised issues about why abortion comes about and, therefore, how to prevent it. For one, we pointed out that sex education and access to contraceptives were pretty good ways of limiting the need for an abortion as a means of post-conception birth control. Two, we pointed out that abortions are likely to happen anyway and, in part, the issue is whether it happens safely or not. She was well-aware that the means existed with or without a law but taking the step of legalizing it was very difficult for her. Third, we talked about an issue that comes up very rarely in the conversation but one that obviously appealed to her – adoption. She pointed out that she knows many people who would help support a pregnant woman who was not getting the help she needed and were also willing to adopt children, even if they were, at she said, mentally disabled or HIV-positive. It is certainly true that the debate about alternatives to abortion has very much been shut-down in this country and that the adoption system does not facilitate these options and conversations.

In the end, we do not know how she voted, but we are pleased that we were able to give her the kind of even-toned, considered discussion she had been needing and was not getting in this overly exposed state – the nature of the campaign had sacrificed too much depth. We also gave her a chance to talk about something else that had happened: some Romney-Ryan supporters that had – just before they came to dinner – come to their church with a huge stack of pamphlets to hand out in church. Which is illegal and the couple said so. The R-R team said, OK, well, you can just put them on the windshields of your parishioners – a suggestion from which they also demurred. Finally, they tried to give the pamphlets into her 10-year-old daughter’s hands to take since her parents were not being compliant.  It was in this frame of mind that she had approached us for a real conversation.

Another interesting character from our trip was a nice man that I will call ‘John’ – just in case. John had reached out to the Obama effort to offer his house as a place for people to stay. John had recently purchased farmland and a lovely, large house about 30 minutes outside Columbus and was willing to share. John himself had an interesting story besides being incredibly kind to give 15 people soft surfaces on which to crash (other parts of our team – on voter protection issues – were on the floor of a church and had no showers). John had worn many hats over the course of his life: the present one was a cowboy hat. He had gone to divinity school but decided not to become a preacher and instead talk Latin, religion, and American history at a Catholic high school. He then got started in IT entrepreneurship and, not so long ago, decided he hadn’t been a farmer yet. He was also just starting a catering company, specializing in chili. Just a few weeks before we arrived, had had been kicked in the chest by one of his horses and had a fractured sternum, though you wouldn’t have guessed it. John had been a lifelong Republican prior to the lead-up to the 2008 election. He was somewhat frustrated with Republican leadership and was interested in this guy whose life story seemed to parallel his own – his family was originally from Kansas but he grew up in Hawaii, where his father was stationed. This was enough to intrigue him and, though he doesn’t agree with everything Obama has done, he has stuck with him.

The final main character of our time in Columbus was a woman I will call Tisha. We heard about Tisha the first day we arrived at our ‘staging location’ (we were stationed at one main one but also helped at others when they had a high volunteer ‘flake rate’). On one of the previous rounds of knocking, Tisha had indicated that she would need a ride to the polls but we did not have her phone number and had never caught her at home since. One of the main coordinators (‘A’) at the staging location told us to keep an eye out for Tisha. We were trying to help facilitate rides, although we also heard that, interestingly, Somali cab drivers generally gave free rides to the polls on Election Day. We also heard of one case of a policeman taking an elderly lady and waiting the hour while she voted.

As it happened, my main buddy P, had Tisha on her turf list on the last day (the day of Three Knocks). We were in the same area – she had even addresses and I had odd. The last day gave you time to really get invested in these folks – if, on the first pass they said they were going to go later in the day, but they still hadn’t gone by the second pass, then you were pretty determined by the third one to get them out the door. But Tisha was not home on any of the three passes. Throughout the time week/end, P and I had been fairly creative with adding embellishments to the literature we were meant to leave at unanswered doors (I was also creative with the placement of the literature, which may or may not have been appreciated. We were not supposed to leave literature in mailboxes – quite a few of my pieces of literature were left sticking out of jack o’lanterns’ mouths, hopefully to the amusement of recipients.) We would add information on voting times and locations. I would add notes complimenting their Halloween decorations or the coolness of their names and so on. I woke up one woman around 11:00am. She promised she had set her alarm for 2:30 to go vote. I left a note saying I hoped she was well-rested and ready to vote. Anyway, on the last pass, Pamela left a note for Tisha that said that she knew she needed a ride and left A’s number on the last piece of literature. Tisha was our last stop – around 18:00 and the polls closed at 19:30 – and then we were shipped off to cover another turf. When we got back to the staging location at 20:00 or so, A happily announced that Tisha had called at about 19:00 and was whisked off to vote just in time.