For want of a corkscrew...
Be prepared when lightning strikes
The time was November of 2004, shortly after the presidential election. The place was Charleston, South Carolina. It was the night after the Calorie Restriction Society Conference. Several of us, including Brian Manning Delaney, the president of the society, were hanging out that night and catching a flight home in the morning.
It was my first CR Society conference, but I already had a passion for calorie restriction with optimal nutrition for longevity. That’s all a very long story, but a somewhat short version and a picture of my former partner (now closest friend) and me in our old kitchen is here.
The small group of us had gone to a Whole Foods to forage for dinner and had picked up a bottle of red wine, the favorite at the time before the idea that the trace of resveratrol in red wine had any anti-aging properties was debunked. We were all ready for a glass of wine, but no one had a corkscrew.
The Days Inn (I think) where we were staying had no corkscrew. This wasn’t exactly the Four Seasons.
We may have checked a neighboring hotel too and found no corkscrew. So we had no wine, just salads.
In the process of looking for the corkscrew that never appeared, however, the small group of us got to know each other quite well. I talked a bit about my labor organizing work, a subject which seemed to fascinate the British member of our little group. He asked lots of questions, and ever accustomed to answering questions about the union, I answered them.
Just a few weeks later, he offered me the equivalent of my then-current salary to be a fundraiser for a foundation that was working to promote anti-aging biotech. I accepted the offer, raised about a million dollars in three months, then went back to my labor organizing job. I realized that the foundation wasn’t at the point where I could really be of most value, and I missed organizing. But I learned a lot in a short time about fundraising, and it was a very exciting ride.
More importantly, this experience taught me to expect the unexpected and be prepared. I rarely dismiss things as impossible, or even improbable. I prepare for the worst, to be sure, and attempt to get through ordinary days without collapsing of boredom or frustration. But I’ve had things like this happen to me often enough that I have focused on putting myself in the right place at the right time and being ready for whatever may happen.
Part of this is being willing to walk up to just about anyone and ask them just about anything. Organizing is impossible if you are afraid to talk to people or to ask them to do things. There is an art to it, to be sure. One of these days I’ll get around to writing my short list of sayings I came up with in almost twenty years of training young organizers. “Never make them say no,” was one of my favorites. If you ask a worker to sign a union card and they say no, you’ve backed them into a corner where they feel committed to the no. But if you time it just right and don’t ask until they’re ready to say yes, you get the card, and the thing that matters, the commitment. Or better yet, you just play it cool and answer all their questions, for hours if need be, over multiple meetings, at multiple coffee shops and diners and pizza shops and living rooms, until eventually they say, “Give me that card!”
Organizing a market takes playing the long game, and being willing to wait through disappointments that defeat organizers who take the workers’ current unwillingness to organize a union as a personal failure. Organizing also teaches how to handle having very little control over most of the factors that impact your work and life - but controlling that which you can. We can not control the economy, the weather, or the boss’ campaign. We can show up early, have total message discipline, keep our cool when others are freaking out, and make sure the folders are made. Oh, and don’t forget the pens. Nurses love pens. I used to have about 500 union pens in the trunk of my car at all times because you never know!
Another of my favorite pieces of organizer knowledge that is useful at all phases of life is “Never respond to the boss.” I knew John Kerry was going to lose the minute he said something like, “No attack will go unanswered.” If you respond, you just keep people thinking about the other side’s issues. Stay on your own issues. Ignore the other side. This takes discipline and coolheadedness (some of my staff would have called it coldness - yes I have been accused of being cold, and not just in the “Yes, I’d love to borrow your jacket, thank you!” sense - but it’s learning how to put the needs of the campaign above your own personal feelings. It has paid off in teaching me not to argue with people who will automatically disagree. I don’t put caveats into my persuasive writing like “Well, some people might be like this but I’m not like that…” or other semi-apologies. Write what needs to be written and leave it. If no one is complaining about something you wrote, don’t bother writing. Anything good generates some controversy.
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I have missed being able to use my organizing skills, and it looks like soon/now I will have the opportunity to use them again for a cause about which I care very deeply. I’m an extreme team player - I love to do things with people I like, and I don’t like to be alone all the time. This finds me in a funny place as a freelancer. While I enjoy my freedom and the ability to control my time and write uncensored by employers, my favorite part is working with clients because I love to work collaboratively with other people. I’m like a dried up plant when I don’t get to collaborate. Pour a little bit of teamwork onto me and I turn into a flower right after the rain has fallen. Except I don’t aggravate your allergies. Or sit still for very long.
In the near future I’ll write about some new things I’m up to… a preview is that I’m going to New Haven in November for the first time in 17 years for an event that as of last week I am helping to organize. As my college roommate used to say about any sort of cliffhanger, “Film at eleven!”
Orange hibiscus right after a big rainfall.