Politics: Nice place to visit, wouldn't want to live there

SOME political science major I was, having lost every run for class office I ever made. Have you ever been booed by thousands of people at once? That's what I got out of running for junior class president. Made getting rejected by guys not feel so bad, though.

Maybe we learn better from failure than from success. Disorientation gives us a reason to look around and learn.

I watched politics avidly, predicting Gray Davis' win in the 1998 gubernatorial race several weeks in advance, and worked for a summer for then-state Sen. Patrick Johnston. I answered the phone and filed constituent casework. I remember three things vividly about that experience.

One was the first day of work, when I tried to dress "professionally," possibly for the first time in my life. I came downstairs with my chosen outfit on, and my mom burst out laughing. So I went back to my room and tried again. Instead of approving, my mom laughed even harder. I seem to recall that she and my sister thought I was choosing long-sleeved, thick clothes that would be far too warm on a hot Stockton summer day. But the air conditioning made that moot.

I remember the office's head honcho asking me to crunch some numbers, and that someone else had to gently explain to me that when he gave me an assignment, I should drop everything else.

And I remember the summer of the cremains scandal. A helicopter pilot died, and in his storage unit authorities found hundreds of jars of cremated human remains. He had been hired to fly out over the Pacific to spread them, but hadn't. The local newspapers were aghast, and one area resident called us for help finding out whether her late husband's ashes were among those found. The newspapers had "cremains" in front-page headlines for days.

I took a phone message from her and hurriedly noted "re: cremains" on the While You Were Out pad. The caseworker, seeing my note and the headlines, took our lead in using "cremains" in her letter to the constituent. But Microsoft Word's spell checker flagged it, suggesting, "Regarding the matter of your husband's creaminess" instead.

The closest I came to politics as I understood it — meaning Real Issues — was answering letters from the small but dedicated demographic that hated California's pet ferret ban. But I kept watching politics, much as many people follow sports, more as a fan than as a participant. It's acceptable to be passionate about your party or your team, and while there's always more trivia to master, you can feel superior and self-righteous with almost no commitment.

In November 2000, when I was a political science major at the University of California, Berkeley, it was pretty much a given that I would watch the election returns come in live at the Institute for Governmental Studies. Do you remember that election? How strong and loud and clear were the hopes on either side, and how unquestioningly they relied on the certainty of defeat or success on election night. And then ...

We listened and watched, cheered and booed as local and state returns came in. And then we waited for the presidency to fall, and it dipped and hovered impossibly long and high. In disbelief, around midnight, the director of the institute announced that he had to close down the building.

A young Republican man walked me home. I seem to recall he was in the military, maybe the ROTC. We made small talk, still searching out the walls of the tentative bubble of this strange election. He dropped me off and I never saw him again.

In 2004, my co-workers at a liberal Web magazine watched the returns come in live on the office TV. I worked like a golem, fueled by a free bagel, leftover hash browns, vending machine potato chips and Pop-Tarts, and co-workers' leftover Halloween candy. Again, I waited and waited, running back and forth between customer service work at my computer and the big TV at the other end of the office. Toward the end of the day, the room filled with pizza, booze, CNN and increasingly grim jokes. By the time the TV went off, it was late enough that I just slept at the office under my cubicle desk, my head resting on an ad hoc pillow of promotional T-shirts.

This year will be another disorientation. My hopes each year get more and more tentative. I don't run anymore, and I hardly even proselytize. But I still watch. There's still that young part of me, the political science major, that whispers, "This is important. Listen."

Sumana Harihareswara writes for Bay Area Living each week. You can write to her at sumana@crummy.com.