Wednesday, February 13, 2013

An I-Don't-Give-a-Rat's-Ass Epiphany, Part 2

God forbid you should miss Part 1.

As I stood clutching my satchel full of GMO ballot initiatives, I told the armed guard standing in front of the synagogue that I was there to speak at a sustainable living class. He found my name on the list, deemed me terrorist-free and waved me in. "When had West L.A. become the West Bank?" I wondered.

Once inside the foyer area, I saw the ornate, sacred torahs and children’s arts and crafts displayed in glass cases that led to a large reception hall with high ceilings and gold chandeliers. I walked inside, and about 50 people were sitting at several round banquet tables. My eyes immediately clung to a long, empty table I imagined would have been chock-full of rugelach, mandelbrot, macaroons and babkas on a Friday night. But as I cursed my calendar for being a Tuesday, I reminded myself I was there on a mission—not for a nosh. 

A woman in her early sixties, about 4”11 with short brown hair and wire-rimmed glasses came up to me. 

“Are you a member?" she said with urgency, as if some other synagogue were about to snatch me up.”

“No,” I said, in awe of this lady's chutzpah and Jewdar.  

“Would you like to be?” 

“I don’t practice anymore,” I said. 

I wasn’t going to confess to her that I was only in it for the food. So I quickly changed the subject to the task at hand, and before I knew it, I was standing at the podium. 

My fear of public speaking prevented me from opening with my freshly minted Harvey Milk joke. So I said, “I’m with Label GMOs and I'm here to talk about an initiative we’re trying to get on the 2012 California ballot to label genetically modified food.” I was pretty sure that line wouldn't have killed in the Catskills, but now I was on the GMO-free circuit, not the Borscht Belt, and this was no laughing matter. 

As I gave my short spiel, I could tell this was a savvy group of liberals. All I had to say was "we have a right to know what's in our food," and I had them eating out of my hands. Of course with this crowd, I could have mentioned the deleterious health effects of GMOs, and I would've had them at “organ failure.” Between personal liberties and health obsessions, these were my people—the chosen ones. They were not only eager to sign the clipboards I passed around, some of them came up to me and asked if they could collect signatures. Apparently God was in the house.

Joan, the lady with chutzpah, said she’d take five sheets. Gary, a nice guy in his sixties, said he could collect signatures at the synagogue's day care center. Then the two of them thought that if they got permission from the rabbi, I could come back for Friday night services when there would be a lot more people. They could set up a table in the foyer and I could bring some signage. I hadn't been to services in so long, I felt a little nervous. Did they wear jeans or pearls? I guess if the rabbi was on board, I'd find out.  

One day at work, I got a call from Joan.

“I’ve got five pages of signatures for you,” 
she said.

“That’s great! Where did you get them?”

“I tried a few places, but ended up in Trader Joe’s, asking people who were standing in line. It was hard work,” she said, surprised.

“You want some more sheets?” 

“No," she said as if I had just asked her to climb Mt. Sinai with a bum foot. "I said I'd get you five sheets and I did."

I drove to Joan's house to pick up the ballots, and then I got the word.

"The rabbi gave his blessing," she said. 

Friday night, I set up my literature on a long table in the foyer outside the synagogue sanctuary and sat there waiting. A few people came over to me, but I wasn't getting much action. Then Gary showed up, and the schmooze-fest began. He worked that foyer like Bill Clinton at the county fair. As congregants walked by, Gary called each one by name, said a few lines and escorted them over to my table.

"Michael," he'd say. "Have you heard about this initiative to get genetically modified food labeled? We want to know what's in the food our kids and grandkids are eating. It's an issue we feel is very important to the community. If you'll just sign this clipboard here."

I just sat there answering questions, verifying their information and thanking them for signing.

The day before the signature-gathering deadline had come to an end, I drove to Gary’s house to pick up the signatures he had gotten at the daycare center. As I held all the ballots I had collected in my hot, little hands, I realized that even though I did not enjoy this type of work, I had gone out there and gotten the quota I had committed to at the beginning of the campaign. Did it matter that I felt mousy and didn’t do all the heavy lifting myself? Mousy, my ass. A signature's a signature. I was a freaking power broker, an ace recruiter—the big GMO-free, Harvey Milk cheese!

Stay tuned for the gripping conclusion.

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Monday, February 4, 2013

An I-Don't-Give-a-Rat's-Ass Epiphany, Part 1

As far as epiphanies go, this isn’t up there with discovering you’re really a man trapped in a woman’s body or anything. It is about growing a pair, though. Either way, cahones are involved. Let me explain.

In the summer of 2011, a small group of people were sitting at a Santa Monica coffee house having a let’s-trash-Monsanto-over-a-macchiato meetup. The goal was to plan an anti-GMO rally in L.A. that would get some media coverage. From what I could gather, no one had activist chops savvy enough to plan a real rally—never mind changing the world’s food supply. Someone sort of knew how to get access to the Federal Building grounds in Westwood. Someone else knew a Brazilian band that might play for free. Another guy knew a raw food vendor who could set up a booth. I thought, if only I knew someone with a Port-O-Potty, I’d be useful right now.

Talk about from the ground up. Sheesh. How was this grassroots group gonna tell the world about Monsanto and its nefarious scheme for global seed domination? If the world is our target market, don’t we at least need a strategy brief from Ogilvy & Mather? And shouldn't a P.R. agency be on board? Sure, I’d been writing in the advertising trenches since the caveman invented the first wheel slogan, but did I actually know how to plan and deploy a world-changing campaign from down there? I may have been feeling all hopey and changey, but I was no community organizer or president of the Harvard Law Review. I was no behind-the-scenes Karl Rove mastermind or touchey-feeley Bill Clinton charmer. Maybe I could get a few people to bite with my mastery of words, but global deployment strategies were always left to the bigger fish full of mercury. After all my years in shark-infested waters, where was Jaws when I needed him? As I sat fixating on a guy eating a pecan square, wondering if he knew whether it had GMO corn syrup in it or not, I was feeling dubious about this motley crew’s activist potential—especially my own.

Yet somehow over the next several months, the Rally for the Right to Know got planned and our day had come. Several hundred people showed up with signs. We proudly held them high as we yelled at cars that drove by. Indian dancers performed traditional corn dances. Speakers from the world of health and politics enlightened and motivated us. While we never got that Port-O-Potty, we were pissed off together, comrades in arms with bladders on the brink. I left feeling like I was part of a secret society that knew something that the rest of the world hadn't been privy to yet. Or maybe people just didn’t want to know. Either way, we were determined to tell them.

In 2012, I manned a booth at my local farmers’ market on Sundays to collect signatures for a GMO labeling initiative that we were trying to get on the California ballot in November. But unlike Field of Dreams, I built a booth, and not that many came. So for my dream of GMO-free fields, I had to go to them. Yep, I had to be one of those people you want to swat like flies when they walk up to you with their clipboards and get all up in your face. At times I would have rather been in the dentist's chair, but like braces, I figured it would pay off one day with a shiny new food supply. 

Even when I asserted myself, I stood there feeling mousy, envying the more effective evangelists who seemed to be endowed with thicker skin. I remembered a part-time telemarketing job I had in college when some guy I called reduced me to tears by yelling at me for interrupting his dinner. And another time in high school when I worked behind the movie theater concession counter, some jerk threw a hissy fit when I took too long getting his butter-flavored popcorn. It seemed that whenever someone yelled at me for doing a sales job I not only hated, but was lousy at, like Time Warner cable, my tears were On Demand. But with me, no subscription was necessary.

One Sunday at the farmers' market, I went up to my city councilman, who didn't know me from Adam.
"Bill," I said. "Will you sign this initiative to get GMO labeling on the November ballot?"
"I don’t know," he said. “That's a complicated issue."
"It's just a label," I said. "We're not banning anything. We have a right to know what’s in our food. California has a chance to lead the whole country. You’re a progressive. Don't you want to lead the fight for food justice?”
He stood there quietly for a few seconds. 
"Oh all right," he said." You talked me into it." 

It was a small victory, but by influencing my councilman, somehow I felt I had graduated to the next level. I was feeling more testicularly up to the task. So I took my newfound balls and spoke at a few sustainable living classes about GMOs and the ballot initiative as I tried to collect signatures and recruit volunteers. When I was asked to speak at a synagogue, I figured if Mitt Romney could turn the French into Mormons, the least I could do was get some members of my own tribe on board. It wasn’t like I was asking anyone to become a Christian or marry a goy. Would a little volunteering to help save the world's food supply kill them? 

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