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  • Four years ago, the year before we got married, Kate and I and our cat, Tallulah, were speeding across Rte. 80, relocating from San Francisco to our new home in Baltimore. I'd landed a short-term teaching gig at Maryland Institute College of Art, just for the fall semester, but beyond that, neither Kate nor I had any firm job prospects.

    Tallulah was interviewing at Goldman Sachs.

    It was difficult to leave the cultural mecca of San Francisco, and to say goodbye to fruitful years as an MFA fiction student, joining the workforce once again. But everyone told us how Baltimore was this great up-and-coming bastion of knifings and syphilis, so...

    We left the Bay Area the day before John McCain proudly proclaimed, "The fundamentals of the economy are strong." A couple days later we arrived in Rock Springs, Wyoming, where we were baffled to find that none of their hotels had vacancies, even on a random Tuesday. We checked the usual chains, then venturing to the seedy, blinking-sign motor lodges and higher-end suites, yet were repeatedly turned away. Finally, a Motel 6 offered us their one remaining room. For $325/night.

    The front desk clerk was all of eighteen, but she seemed knowledeable enough.

    "What convention is in town?" I asked her.

    "No convention," she said. "A ton of people had their houses foreclosed, or else can't afford to pay their utility bills. It's cheaper for most people to book extended stays here than to stay in their homes. We've been full-up solid for the past month. And hey, I'm sorry, is that a cat? Because..."

    I began plotting our morning exodus and handed her my beleaguered Mastercard. Tallulah was exiled and forced to post up with some natural gas magnates, friends of hers and big Dick Cheney supporters, who owned a ski chalet outside of town.

    It happened very fast. By the time we reached Kentucky, Lehman Brothers and Washington Mutual were gone. When we arrived in Baltimore, the whole financial thingie was on the brink. Then November came.

    Like many young folks yearning for change, Kate and I were thrilled when Obama won. We believed in him as a leader and the whole thing felt like a referendum on the failed Bush policies of the past 8 years, as well as the seemingly similar policies promised by McCain, a sad example of a once-impressive leader brought to his pandering knees by the Republican machine and their bar-lowering choice of that Alaskan whackadoo as his running mate. Plus, there was something so exciting and validating about being part of an HISTORICAL MOMENT! The first black President! Kate and I hugged and cried in front of the television as CNN announced the results, hopeful for a brighter tomorrow. "This moment is precious," we whispered to each other. "Here is where it all starts to change." Until then, together, we'd hold each other above water.

    At this same moment, Tallulah knocked a bottle of our celebratory Heavy Seas Ale onto Kate's laptop. "Shit's still gonna happen," she seemed to say to us, "so keep your expectations in check." Our cat was and is a staunch Republican.

    Indeed, for many months, shit still happened. Nobody wanted to hire us fulltime, even with our fancy Ivy League and masters degrees. Everyone was scared. Then, three months after Obama's inauguration, I finally landed a job at a "heritage management" firm--only a two-hour commute from Baltimore!--which became available because business was so bad they had to form a think tank of “innovators” to drive business during the downturn, and because I knew a guy.

    And now, for the soapboxing: For the past four years, my career has entailed researching, crafting narratives about, and working very closely on a daily basis with some of the world's largest organizations, chronicling many decades worth of their historical moments in books, documentaries, exhibits and websites. Having creative-directed major projects for financial services, manufacturing and healthcare companies worldwide, I've had have insane access to archives and corporate leaders, and have amassed some unique experiences peeking behind the curtain of Fortune 500s.

    Some of them are great. Offering valuable goods and services. Nice people. Delicious cafeterias. But I'm not sure who started the myth that the private sector is some perfectly efficient machine of growth and job creation. With any large institution, insane amounts of money are thrown away because of indecision, internal bickering, stupidity and pure luxury. Beyond these operational inefficiencies, I saw how for-profit leaders are typically more beholden to shareholders, their own job security and the company's bottom line rather than the quality of their goods/services or the well-being of their employees/customers. The decision to outsource and cut corners is deemed necessary because every other company is doing the same thing. "Free market," "free trade" and "deregulation" become buzzwords to justify screwing over the "have-nots" so a small number of "haves" can watch that tiny green arrow on the bottom of their television screen tell them their stock has just ticked up a fraction of a point. Meanwhile, the workaday employees—white collar and blue collar alike—do what they must to keep their jobs.

    It's not that companies have no heart. Far from it. Most corporations understand that there's a delicate balance between making a buck and doing the right thing, and wish to do both. One client was founded 100 years ago as a free tuberculosis sanatorium catering mainly to the decimated populations of garment workers toiling in unsanitary sweatshops. Today, it's a comprehensive cancer center, still heavily supported by the garment and apparel industries that formed its foundations a century ago. Whether preying on cheap immigrant labor in turn-of-the-century Lower East Side or outsourcing modern manufacturing jobs to China and Mexico, to examine the history of private enterprise suggests our global economy still relies on a modified form of the same slave labor that literally built this country from the soil up. Robots are only the next logical step in a long evolution.

    And speaking of robots, today is Election Day. Some say all the candidates and parties are the same. I disagree. To me, the central issue of today's choice is whether we push to create a more equitable and supportive society, or one that champions greed and selfishness, at the expense of collective growth. It's a choice between raising up the weakest among us because it's the right thing to do on an economic and even spiritual level (knowing full well that some of them will not want or accept a helping hand, and some will surely squander the help they do receive, but that many will appreciate and benefit from social and economic assistance), rather than stepping on the little guy to further pad the wealthiest bank accounts in the world. It's a choice for civil rights, human equality and common sense in social issues, rather than asserting one's will over another while blaming it on one's faith. (Doesn't "Marriage should be defined as between a man and a woman!" sound an awful lot like, "Black people should be defined as only 3/5 of a white person!").

    Maybe I'm oversimplifying or overstating. There's always nuance, hypocrisy, gray area, confusion. Here's my own:

    Almost exactly one year ago was November 17, 2011, Occupy Wall Street's "Day of Action." In this video from that morning ( http://youtu.be/60eFZ4v8jY0 ) I'm on the left side of the line that gets overrun by cops--the first proactive action by the police that morning. I share this not to devolve into a discussion on the merits or faults of OWS. It’s more an allegory:

    I arrived at the Bank of America plaza to find no one in charge, yet thousands of passionate people ready to march for an unclear cause. I searched for literature and leadership--and even ventured to write in Black Sharpie marker the phone number of a law firm specializing in OWS's kind of free speech defense, should I get arrested--yet I still wasn't sure what I was supposed to do. Finally, a young bearded fellow stepped onto a soapbox-y thing, began that "human microphone" call-and-response, and he told us to film everything. Especially the police.

    The point of the whole thing, it seemed, was to catch them being assholes.

    By the time we reached the corner of Wall Street and Hanover, we were told to form a human barricade blocking the entrance to the NYSE. A few minutes later, a line of New York's finest were set up direct against our backs.

    The girl next to me was all of five feet tall, but she seemed knowledeable enough.

    "What's the plan ?" I asked her.

    "No plan," she said. "I know it all has something to do with getting the money out of politics and the politics out of business, and maybe proving to ourselves and some higher governmental or corporate authority that Americans are not all apathetic whiners asleep at the wheel, and so that was enough to get me out of bed and down to Wall Street this morning."

    She asked what I did for a living and I sheepishly admitted the cognitive dissonance that only an hour earlier I'd finished authoring a book about the employees of a financial services firm, who actually had their hearts in the right place, as far as banks/credit card companies go. She told me she was a middle school social studies teacher, who had to leave in 15 minutes because she was directing a school production of “Guys and Dolls” and was leading rehearsal in a couple hours. Until then, together, we agreed we'd try to hold the line.

    It happened very fast. When the cops started pushing and the line fell apart, I remember a moment where two police officers looked at me, pushed me aside, and instinctively swarmed the 5-foot-tall social studies teacher instead. I ended up twisted around a fire hydrant and did not realize the girl beside me got arrested until I saw this video the next day. I'm pretty sure she got arrested and I got away simply because she was physically smaller and less lucky than I was, not because I was smarter or more talented or worked any harder or built anything all by myself.

    Our corporate system—and maybe our biology—is designed to encourage us to vanquish the weak. We can give into this tendency wholeheartedly, or we can aim to evolve. But I believe that at our best and most evolved we are defined by how we treat those around us—our family, our friends, our employees, even our competitors and enemies. Between two opposites there usually exists a tenuous yet graceful balance. There is light and dark inside all of us, left and right, individuals and institutions alike. Ultimately, self-awareness asks us to admit this fact, and to hedge to one side while keeping a fingerhold on the other. When the line is stretched, we hold that tension as best we can, and do that dance with The Other, lest it devolve into a mess of bodies scrambling on the ground.

    This morning, I voted for Obama. I'm now going to try to convince my cat Tallulah to do the same, even though she remains a massive racist. So go vote today, if only to understand which side you've chosen. It's an historical moment, and more precious than you think.
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