Saturday, November 10, 2007

The National

I held tightly to Q as we zigzagged around October puddles, mildewy beggars and hipster teens towards The Showbox entrance. I kept good hold of her, because everyone at The National show was dressed just like us - the days of each boy coming of age in Seattle being issued a goatee are over; now he gets a gray hoodie, indie tee, and Chinese military cap. We managed to arrive early enough to see the last song of the opening act (a regrettable and barely recognizable Beatles medley which must have jostled John in his grave).

Following the show, I flew across the country to, in part, carry my grandfather's ashes from a funeral home to an SUV back seat. I don't say that to be dramatic, I wasn't close with him, rather to set the scene: thirty hungry, hot, sticky Pennsylvanians scooping beans, seven kinds of pasta salad, meet slices, fried things, and condiments onto flimsy paper plates. The demographics were as uniform as they were diverse: my aunt and uncle (three- and two-years my junior) are tiny waifs while half the group is clinically obese. Cops chatted up familiar robbers; proud gold coin holders hugged late stage alcoholics; folks who had been to church six times that week mingled with those who haven't been in decades. I couldn't stick out if I tried - besides, half the men had my nose.

Q and I played a game with the roadies: we tried to guess which hipster was the lead singer (or even in the band). It was too close to call as Q bet on the flannelled, army-capped, bearded man. There were at least six microphones and six guitars on the stage, flanked by three keyboards and a full drum set. The lead singer turned out to be a dead ringer for Sting circa 1990. Whatever their set would hold, I knew we'd cut them a lot of slack based on their adorableness. Q admitted a crush on the lead singer, but really, who doesn't love Sting? Half the band unintentionally looked like Muppets. This was going to be a great show.

My grandfather has been in ill health for years, and in some respects his passing was a blessing. Also, the man was cantankerous, contentious, mean-spirited and outright antagonistic. I'm not being harsh. Less than two weeks ago my father found him with a black eye - apparently another nurse went fist-to-fist with him. A man who could barely lift both arms, having only one leg, missing internal pieces, and on every medication known to man managed to pick a fight a week before his body finally gave up. I'd hate to see the nurse; I bet she's in worse shape.

Bands with only one album face an uphill battle on stage. The National have one 43-minute full length album (Boxer) with many quality songs, though I wasn't sure how their mellow vibe and fathomless vocals would translate to the big stage during a 90 minute set. Sure enough, they vamped the tempo a bit for the slow pieces and extended the solos a few bars. Besides that, the album and show were identical twins raised on opposite coasts. The National pulled off a polished, tight set with a quick encore and enough energy to get the crowd singing along for a good part of the concert. Their catchy hooks helped.

Sonically, they rocked. The lead singer belted out his vocals in spastic stances while he disassembled the microphone stand. Unfortunately, the deepness of the singer's voice made it difficult to understand most of the lyrics. (Even though I know all the words to Fake Empire, I barely recognized a line from the live version.) The violinist had the most energy of the bunch (and the least melodic subtlety), though the drummer and lead guitarist made the best faces. I'm a big fan of music faces. The guitarist wriggled his jowls left and right, the drummer sported Animal expressions to compliment his Muppet-like hair.

My father was sitting on his couch when I came downstairs with my packed luggage. His face was blank. It often is. I could see his shoulders slightly creeping back up with the weight of his father's illness finally lifted. He's been busy with the arrangements. He did an amazing job organizing the family. He hasn't had time to miss his father yet. He didn't want to talk about much other than the money and the family's responsiveness to his leadership - they were uncharacteristically easygoing about the arrangements which met his budget by less than $100. He looked up from a laptop and over the blaring television shyly smiled at me. I miss him, too.

The National has a long way to go before they can claim mastery of the live show. After their warm-up trilogy of songs they picked up the volume and began what was to be an annoying ritual. Each song ended with a short, loud, frantic, all-chord jam. Much like sex, it was surely more rewarding creating the noise than watching. The violinist danced, the guitars jumped a bit, and the lead singer clapped at the drummer and contorted his arms. They repeated this enough times that Q and I decided to skip the final crescendo of the final song; we got the picture. While The National were light on crowd interaction, I can forgive all transgressions. As we settled back into the Subaru, we threw in Boxer because the music, after all, is what drives the us.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Electing Omar

Omar's Campaign Party Setup
Campaigning at the local level is, as far as I can tell from my three days on the Omar Ahmad for San Carlos City Counsel campaign trail, mostly about walking door to door and waving corrugated plastic signs at commuters. In the end, in the wee hours of the morning overlooking twinkling lights of the bay area to the north and the grey fog silently filling the valleys of San Mateo County, campaigning became about a Wi-Fi connection, homemade Chai, faithful friends and most of all, the drama of the last-counted vote.

The election was touted as a sleeper by all accounts. Low turnout was expected across the county, as no major initiatives were on the ballot, and San Carlos was no exception. Both incumbent City Counsel members had decided to not run, leaving two seats open and four candidates: favorite and former-soccer coach Randy Royce, non-campaigner Alex Phillips, perennial contender John Hoffman, and newcomer Omar Ahmad.

The only hot-button topic in San Carlos was the turf battle – the growing need for more soccer fields with nighttime lights and year-round artificial turf pitted against city-wide NIMBY. Omar was the only candidate to take the stance of “let’s discuss,” rather than just agree to build the turf fields in the hills of precinct 24.

The night of the election, Omar and his supporters began gathering at Campaign Headquarters (a local restaurant) at around 7pm. The results of the mail-in ballots were to be announced at 8:05. Following that, the county would update the website every 30 minutes with vote counts from whatever county precincts had been certified.

We expected to be done by 9:30. With only 28 precincts and less than 3,000 voters expected to turn out, we were not pacing ourselves. 35 people were present eating an abundance of fried food, drinking sparkling cider, and mingling in high spirits. A musician played classic rock covers on an acoustic guitar.

At 8:05 I manned a laptop with a borrowed Wi-Fi connection. The first results were in. Randy was indeed in the lead comfortably. Hoffman held the second open seat, with Omar trailing him by 190 votes. Phillips trailed by twice that. Omar walked over to me, and we showed him the results. He paled. We all paled. This was going to be close.

We suspected Hoffman would lead in mail-in ballots as his supporters were generally older than Omar’s and likely to vote by mail. It seemed only seconds later the 8:30 results were posted. Only 8 total votes in one precinct were added to the count, putting Omar down by 191. We were hoping for better (and more) news.

Omar’s friends took charge, and brought out a huge celebration cake with dozens of candles. A speech was made; then Omar thanked his supporters and took off his candidate name tag. Spirits were still high, but we were all nervous.

I went back to the laptop. 9:05: only a few precincts were added. Omar trailed Hoffman by 161. He made up about 10 votes per precinct. I started doing math. There were 17 precincts left to report, he needed to gain 161 votes, at about 10 per precinct. I predicted the race would be within 15 votes. Omar’s eyes widened, and he went back to making rounds with supporters.

By 9:30, many of the supporters had gone home to watch the results on their own computers and TVs. We started to clean up. I worked the web site and discovered I could tell which precincts were going to report in the next update. Seven more would be reported at 10. We waited.

At 10pm Omar closes the gap to 109 votes as seven more precincts reported. We took down the balloons and banners after the 10:30 update, moved to Omar’s house atop the San Carlos hills. As eight of us left the restaurant, Omar trailed Hoffman by 89 votes with seven precincts left to report.

At Omar’s, we gathered on leather couches and made chai. Omar paced and fretted. I was still hovered over the laptop and, as it was the whole night, at least two people eagerly peered over my shoulder. Refresh. Refresh. “Did you refresh yet?” Refresh.

11pm. Omar trails by 68. There are five precincts uncounted. I work the website again, and find a way to get a breakdown by precinct. Those left to report: 5, 7, 17, 24, and 25.

11:30. Precinct 25 reports. Omar trails by 61. We do the math again and again. It’s going to very close. Omar keeps saying: “24 is going to be big for us. That turf thing, they really supported me when I said I’d talk to them about options. 24 is going to be big.”

Midnight. Only precinct 17 reports. Omar trails by 49 votes. It seems like a lot, with only three precincts left to report results: 5, 7, and 24.

We fret. At two minutes past midnight I see that they have certified all three remaining precincts. The next update will have the final results. The room discusses the possibilities as we go over what we know. We’ve been catching up at a rate of just under 11 per precinct. We need just over 16 per precinct. The vote count is about 1,500 votes for both Omar and John Hoffman. The race is the closest in the county. We Google about recount options and election law. Someone is praying upstairs. The eight of us, close friends and family only, look to Omar for a sign. He’s pacing and holding his breath.

I refresh the browser constantly. Everyone is standing around Omar in the middle of the room. At exactly 12:30am the names I have been staring at all night, “Randy Royce; John Hoffman; Omar Ahmad; Alex Phillips” change order. Omar has taken the lead by 12 votes, all precincts reporting. His name is above Hoffmann’s for the first time that night.

The room erupts in screaming and hollering. We jump around and hug everyone. Omar falls to the ground. Flashbulbs flash. The men take photos of the web site results. We pass the laptop around. Omar calls his parents on the East Coast on speakerphone and we all cheer. This goes on for an hour. Phones erupt with ringing – everyone is talking to everyone, it seems this is the biggest race in the world. It feels important. We blog and update Facebook pages. Omar fields calls from reporters, candidates, and supporters.

Early into the morning the excitement is palpable. This was, after all, a city council position in a small town outside of the bay area. But this was also a community scoring a big win, a man scoring a personal victory, and a whole heck of a lot of suspense. It turns out that precinct 24 was big: Omar beat all other candidates in that precinct, even Royce, and made up 40 votes on Hoffman.

Honorable Omar Ahmad City Counsel Member sat down on his favorite leather chair and ate a large slice of cake around one-thirty am. He smiled broadly and gave out a big belly laugh.