Harry Potter and The Run for Congress

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Harry Potter and The Run for Congress

We are talking on the phone when you remind me, today is National Book Day. Until that point, our conversation was like every other conversation in a political campaign  – a juggling act of two topics being touched upon and seven more in the air above our heads – but even so, at that moment I know you’re remembering the same thing I am:  driving down Divisadero St. at one in the morning, having just picked up our copies of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows at the midnight release party at an independent bookstore in the Marina district of San Francisco. We stood in the car holding our books out the moon roof and hollering Harrrrrryyyyyyy Poooootteeeerrrrrrrrrr! at the strands of late-night pedestrians littering the sidewalks, and getting more than a few drunken Harrrryyyy Pooootttteeer!!! cheers in return, thrilling you.

Thank you for my book, you say to me, and we click them like champagne glasses and make a bet who will finish it first, because there is no question we are going to go straight home and read it straight through the weekend. You are delighted that we are alike in this way.

We have long discussions about obscure points in the Potter canon, the most memorable one about Snape. You are appalled that he is one of my favorite characters, and I am amazed that you have failed to suss what side Snape is really fighting on. What side is that, your non-Harry Potter-reading dad asks, and I am pleased to inform both of you that Snape is a soldier of love.  No WAY, you shriek, and race off to sequester yourself with the book; a few hundred pages in and you are back with a thrilled-sounding But how did you KNOW? To your credit, this is no idle question but a serious one, and I am unsure if my explanation makes sense, mixing as it does what I know from the book and what I know from the world.

I’m a writer, I finally tell you. Writers notice the things other people forget, or don’t bother to see. It’s like a superpower.

Harry Potter is the first but far from the last book we will share.  I sometimes think that if you were the daughter of an English professor perhaps you’d spend more time reading and recommending British novelists but you are the daughter of a software entrepreneur and an immigrant – and by the time you are eleven there is also me, your horror-writer sociologist step mom – and your reading proclivities reflect this.

You are an early reader of the Bitcoin white paper and belong to what may be one of the most elite clubs in the world, one who knows not just who Satoshi is, but also *what* a satoshi is.

The most recent books we’ve shared have titles as fantastical as any Harry Potter sequel, including The Corruption of Capitalism: Why Rentiers Thrive and Work Does Not Pay and Radical Markets: Uprooting Capitalism and Democracy for a Just Society. This last tome was written by a pair of professors that you actually travel to meet in the spring of your 27th year, in Detroit of all places – the place your father is from, a place he traveled out into the world from in his seventeenth year, the same age your sister is now, readying herself even as I write this to take her own leap into the world.

IMG_3339As you’ve grown we’ve kept the habit of sharing books, even reading some of them together, i.e. at the same time in the same room, or on the same trip, serially. You once surprised us on your birthday by calling an impromptu group of friends together for a reading party. If you’ve never had a bouquet of twenty-somethings standing, sitting and reclining quietly in your living room with nothing but the sound of pages turning, I highly recommend it.

During a fly fishing trip in the Sierra Nevada mountains this past summer, hours would pass with the only sound the shiver of leaves overhead, the call of birds and chirping of insects and the occasional sound of pages turning as the four of us – your dad, sister self and me – read in the blessed stillness. We read so much, at the end of the trip all of our headlamp batteries were burned out, and at night we were reduced to scooting close to the campfire, tilting the pages to be illuminated by flames.

At one point there is a choking sound and we all look up to the sight of you with tears streaming down your face.  To our alarmed questions you wave the book you are reading, The Sun Does Shine, about a man who serves 15 years on death row for crimes he is innocent of, until he is exonerated. It’s so unbelievable, you say. What he was forced to endure.  Then, wiping your eyes, you return to the story, and all heads bend down over books again and the sound of the wind is the loudest thing around. Through your work you will meet the man who heads the exoneration process, and quoting him will become a regular feature of our conversations.

It’s easy to wonder if, in such moments, quiet as they appear to be, that change is kindling, ideas are shuffling together, colliding and sparking.  Change happens deep inside of individuals first, where it can bubble for a time, unobserved. Then one day it fountains up and out to fall like rain on faces upturned in hope, wetting soil that has been too dry for anything nourishing to grow, giving purchase to new things that might take root there.

I’ve watched this change with you, shortly after another book entered our lives, this one Architecture of a Technodemocracy, written by an FBI whistleblower who ran for Congress on the platform that American democracy is ripe for disruption from the non-democratic republic with power centralized in the 1%.  Through new and existing technologies – including blockchains – power can distributed to the 100%, without requiring the spending of tax dollars, the passing of new new laws, or otherwise turning to career politicians for leadership.  It’s a far cry from Harry Potter, unless you think of technology as modern magic (which I do).

As an immigrant, you have always been politically ‘woke’ in a way that those of us who can take our state-issued identities and personal safety utterly for granted perhaps never are.  Over the years I’ve watched you become more and more politically engaged, getting out the vote, volunteering with nonprofits and philanthropists focused on reviving our failing democracy; this book – dense with political, legal and institutional history (not unlike Hogwarts: A History) is the latest in a burgeoning library of revolutionary reading that has replaced the Potter pantheon.

You asked many questions as you read the book; you even called the author, now a friend, to get clearer on the points of constitutional law set forth in its pages.  What’s it about, I overhear someone ask you, and though I like to think I never underestimate you, when you swiftly answer “The book is a blueprint on the evolution of human government, organized according to the four rights essential to a practicing democracy: the right to communicate, the right to options, the right to decide, and the right to accountability” I can’t help but blink.

When we first meet, you are about the same age Harry is in the last book. You seemed such a shy creature, half fawn, half girl, with a great gift for stillness and the same blue chip eyes your father looks at me with. My attempts to draw you out are fanciful: if you could choose what super power, to fly or to be invisible, what would you choose, I ask you and your sister, and you each choose differently – your sister chooses to fly but you choose invisibility, perhaps because as a ballet dancer you already know the hard work that comes with breaking however briefly free from the gravity of this world to achieve flight.

Leap and the net will appear, your mamae told you and you listened, carefully and well because being a good listener (which is often mistaken for shyness) is one of the enviable traits you share with your father.  Your life has contained many leaps, each one higher than the last. One of my favorite pictures will always be you in your Stanford graduation gown, diploma in hand:  having leapt from the porch you are five feet into the air, legs forming a perfect and effortless split or so it would seem from your smile, which is also perfect and effortless. But I have watched ballet  practice and there is nothing effortless about it, it is grunting, grueling, sweaty hours of labor to achieve the look of effortlessness.

IMG_3083.PNGI sometimes think that all good listeners achieve a sort of superhero-like invisibility. Good listeners have a way of receding themselves into the background of the story that is being told; good listeners act as a sort of platform for the storyteller, giving them the courage and space needed to find and tell their own story, in their own way.  It is a skill of paramount importance in your work, where you spend your days not designing algorithms for advertising platforms like so many of your brilliant STEM-trained peers, but listening to and recording the stories of those most easy to ignore in our society: the incarcerated, the undocumented and the Dreamers, the poor, the reviled, the left behind, the voiceless. Your work brings you proximate with the most vulnerable among us as well as with some of the most recognizable names in the world – your hasty snapshot of Malala (!) walking past your office is a favorite. You spend your time criss-crossing the country getting sharecroppers registered to vote and interviewing fellow immigrants like Madeleine Albright, handling every detail down to shooting the video and gassing up the bus and everywhere you go, listening.

You are many things: daughter, sister, perennial student, storyteller.  An engineer, a reader, a violinist, a mathlete; like presidential candidate Mayor Pete, you are a polyglot. Being effortlessly multilingual is a skill that would have been considered outlandish growing up in my midwestern town but one that you take for granted:  born of a Brasilian mother, American father, living in a Spanish-speaking neighborhood attending a German language school, you had four languages as a norm by the time you were eight, and picking up Hindu and Mandarin along the way seemed only natural.  How different the world has become in such a short time.

One thing that always stays the same is how our culture likes labels and as such things go millennial is a good one, easy to say and evocative of the future. But it’s an inadequate label too, not hinting at mass shootings and mass incarceration, a warming, polluted planet, runaway student debt shackling the futures of our college graduates and an opioid graveyard holding more bodies than the fallen twin towers that are part of the ordinary fabric of every American millennial’s life, including yours.  Millennial, for me, is not a label that hints at the depths of what you’ve seen and heard, depths that have been quietly entered in your personal ledger and are now a part of your worldview. When I ask you what label you’d apply to yourself, I know you well enough to be unsurprised that you answer with another leap.

How about Congresswoman, you say.  In this moment fellow millennial Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is not yet part of the national consciousness; once she is, you like so many others will be inspired but at the time of this conversation you are motivated not by millennial congressional candidates barnstorming the US House of Representatives, but by your years of listening…. and a recent trip to Berlin. Your trip was lengthy and upon your return you are more deeply troubled than usual by comparisons: everywhere you look America is not only not great again, but not even measuring up to the ordinary perks of ordinary Berliners who enjoy better public transportation, better air quality, better individual health and healthcare, better education, and better freedom from the constant noise of the constant advertising that dominates America’s catastrophically consumerist way of life.

It was as if the returning culture shock jolted things into focus, jolted you into the desire to move beyond storyteller, to move directly to the levers that change the narrative. As you passionately enumerate the problems with a democracy wholly controlled by big business and big money, I experience one of those moments that are a feature (or a bug, depending on your perspective) contained by writers, that of finding connections. In this instance, I am connected to myself at your age, working in a new industry called “technology” for a computer company that few people had heard of and even fewer could pronounce.  Within three years of me joining it, this company will become the number one PC seller in the US.  It is better at making PCs than branding them, though, and it and every other company in the industry will eventually be eclipsed by one brand, Apple.

While I was at this company I spoke with the CEO many times, and I can’t remember a single word he ever said, but I do remember listening to Apple CEO Steve Jobs anytime – every time – he spoke, and often wishing that what I was hearing would become required listening for every high school student. What a better world this would be.

“When you grow up you get told the world is a certain way,” Steve said in an interview. He is a man whose life is intertwined with your own in ways that only seem strange if you’re not a writer like me. Your first job out of college is not for the social media and search companies frantically waving their banners at the woman immigrant Stanford-educated engineer, but for a below-the-radar company where you could dedicate all of your time to the social justice causes that have been as much a part of your life as Harry Potter, as breathing. That this company is run by the widow of Steve Jobs has a novelistic roundness that life rarely accords.

You get told the world is a certain way… but you can change it, Steve said in an on-camera interview still easily findable on the internet. You can poke life – if you push in, something will pop out the other side. You can change it, you can mold it. If you have the passion.

Now, a lot of people have glommed onto this ‘passion’ thing and not always in the way that I think was intended. They think passion is enthusiasm, but it’s not – passion is about what’s under the enthusiasm. New York City marathon winner Juma Ikanaga captured the nature of passion perfectly when he commented that “The will to win is nothing without the will to train”.  I used to think that the famous winners of the famous marathon races possessed more talent than the average runner – as a beginning marathoner, maybe it was a way to excuse my own mid-pack status. But over time I had to admit this wasn’t true – the fact is, elite runners are not born elite. They simply run more miles at a faster pace for a longer time than the average runner, and that is why they win – not because they are the unicorns of the running world but because they are the unicorns of the training world. They have what Steve Jobs meant by passion, which is: if you don’t love what you’re doing, you’ll give up. The ones that end up being successful actually love what they are doing so they persevere through the pain, through the heartache, through the failures and the difficulties.

df6ede6c-3612-4f78-9395-b5d13628325fToday’s headlines are filled with Democrats who passionately wish to be president; whom among them will persevere is anyone’s guess.  That the crowd of hopefuls include a gay man, a woman of color, and an Asian entrepreneur – three descriptions that would have met a flat “never in my lifetime” prediction when I was your age – gives me a renewed hope for the future of  the country.

I do not feel this hope when I listen to the famous incumbent of your Congressional district, who numbers among her greatest skills the ability to raise the big money that is at the root of the ruin of American democratic society.  “The green dream or whatever they call it,” she says dismissively of the resolution that has finally, after decades of inaction, put the climate emergency at the forefront of conversation where it belongs — if you  care about the future we are creating for young people. Which of course she does, being a grandmother – but with more than fifty years between the two of you, perhaps it is fair to say she does not feel the future as presently as you.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was the last in the series by JK Rowling.  The books are eminently quotable, but my favorite quote of all is from Dumbledore, something I actually went and looked up when Donald Trump was elected, because I wanted to feel hopeful – or at least, stalwart: 

 “Dark and difficult times lie ahead. Soon we must all face the choice between what is right, and what is easy.”

What gives me the greatest hope of all is you, yourself.  You are a young woman who has always chosen right over easy. There are many more conversations about what it will mean to become a candidate, many factors will be considered. But it is this moment in the kitchen that my mind returns to again and again, because in it I can see how you have already leapt, and feel, even now, my own heart leap in response.

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About Sandra S.

Mix Edgar Allen Poe and Stephen King with liberal portions of Issac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, John Irving, and Shirley Jackson; gently fold in Louisa May Alcott, the Bronte sisters, Edith Wharton, and Laura Ingalls Wilder. Stir gently. Finish with a sprinkling of William Peter Blatty, Harper Lee, Joyce Carol Oates and Harlan Ellison. Add zest of Truman Capote-scented Josephine Hart. Scrape sides down and mix in Change Rae Lee and Amy Tan. Serve with a reminder of Ursula le Guin. The result is the Reliably Uncomfortable writings of Sandra Stephens in all of her incarnations: woman, writer, wife, runner, lucky stepmom, canulier, democracy warrior and lover of Jake the Dog.

One response »

  1. Reblogged this on reliablyuncomfortable and commented:

    “Dark and difficult times lie ahead. Soon we must all face the choice between what is right, and what is easy.”

    I bought all of my Harry Potters at small independent bookstores instead of Amazon. I found the book release parties an amazing affirmation that books can stimulate as much anticipation as movies, just like back in the day before video killed the radio star, when crowds of people would wait at the docks for the latest Sherlock Holmes to arrive by boat, pushing and shoving in their excitement, some people falling into the water and drowning. The first fans (fan being short for ‘fanatic’) were literary, though at the time the upper class would never deign to call any book so appealing to the masses as literature. We know better now, the power and importance of stories.

    The last Harry Potter has a special resonance for me, a living reminder how books can connect us, how books and the people who read them can and do change the world, all the time, often in wholly unexpected ways.

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