press pool by Gayle Brandeis
Author’s note: I wrote this essay in August, 2016. Since the election, so much of what I’ve written here feels naive. I have added annotations to reflect how much life has changed—how much I have changed—since I wrote this piece.
Press (verb): move in a specified direction by pushing
Pool (noun): a readily available supply
The woman at the registration booth hands me a lanyard with two badges—a large plastic one that says MEDIA, a smaller yellow paper one that says White House Press Pool.
White House Press Pool.
I feel giddy and guilty all at once.
When I heard on my car radio that President Obama was coming to speak in the Lake Tahoe area, my heart went all fizzy, but by the time I rushed home to my computer, tickets were sold out. No way was I going to miss Obama when he was nearby—I was determined to find a way to get in. A colleague told me more tickets were slated to be released that Friday at 4pm; I set a reminder on my calendar but had no luck, despite refreshing Ticketmaster over and over at the appointed time, assuring it again and again that I was not a robot. There had to be something else I could do. I scanned the Lake Tahoe Summit website in desperation and lit upon the “media inquiries” email; I have no press affiliation, but sent along my writing bio, named my husband as my photographer, and crossed my fingers.
The woman at the media registration table asks what outlet I’m with, and I’m not sure what to tell her. I’m an essayist, not a journalist; I have no idea who I’m going to pitch, what sort of story I might write about this event. “I’m freelance,” I say, which is true, but I still feel like I conned my way here. I wish I could channel my mom’s chutzpah—she would waltz into fancy resorts with her swim bag and use their “guests only” pools without compunction; she believed she belonged everywhere, deserved everything. Instead, I’m more like my dad, who once told me he felt sheepish taking an apple from a bowl in his own home. Several years ago, I was able to bring my parents to see Bill Clinton speak at a publishing convention (where I also felt like a fraud, even though my publisher flew me there to promote one of my books.) My parents never stopped talking about that speech; they would have been overjoyed to see President Obama in person. They’re both gone now, my dad just three months ago. I’ll have to find a way to push past my imposter syndrome and enjoy the hell out of this for them.
A dog sniffs my purse and Michael's camera bag after a Secret Service agent riffles through them both. Another agent asks us to each take a gulp of the smoothies we’ve brought with us, presumably to make sure they contain nothing more nefarious than kale; we do, we’re patted down, and we’re in.
IT WILL NOT BE THIS EASY TO GET A PRESS PASS FOR TRUMP EVENTS, SEEING AS HE SEES MEDIA AS THE ENEMY (OR, AS STEVE BANNON CALLED IT, THE “OPPOSITION,” SAYING THE MEDIA SHOULD “KEEP ITS MOUTH SHUT.”) WHY WOULD TRUMP’S ADMINISTRATION APPROVE A PRESS PASS FOR A TRUMP-OPPOSED FREELANCER WHEN HE IS CONVINCED THE MAINSTREAM MEDIA IS OUT TO GET HIM?
Press (verb): apply pressure to (a flower or leaf) between sheets of paper in order to dry and preserve it.
Pool (verb): to accumulate or become static
The Lake Tahoe Summit is a yearly forum to discuss the future of the lake, and how we can best restore and protect what has been called the “Jewel of the Sierra.” Thousands of people are here; some, like me, are here mainly for Obama; some are here to see The Killers, who are taking the stage after the speakers; some are here primarily for the conversation about Tahoe. Lots of people have environmentally themed t-shirts and pins; others wear political t-shirts—lots of Hillary, lots of Dump Trump. This area tends to be pretty conservative; it’s nice to be surrounded by a Democratic crowd. I feel a bit over-dressed—I’m in a maroon and black Diane von Furstenburg knock-off I found at Ross 13 years ago. I wanted to look “professional” for the press pool, to dress up for Obama, but I hadn’t thought about how the synthetic fabric of the dress, the long sleeves, would feel in the hot sun. Part of me wishes I had worn my “Give a Hoot, Don’t Pollute” t-shirt instead.
Earlier, as we walked from our car to the venue, Michael and I passed a large, vocal crowd of TPP protestors and a pang sliced through my heart. It’s been a long time since I’ve been part of a protest. My website labels me “Author Teacher Activist” but other than circulating a lot of online petitions and articles and writing a few letters to people in power here and there, my activist side has been pretty dormant the last few years. I used to organize protests and vigils, used to put my body on the streets, on the line. What happened?
The protestors were chanting “Obama, you can’t run, you can’t hide, we can see your corporate side” and I realized it’s been a while since I’ve even been critical of our president. There are plenty of aspects of his presidency I haven’t been happy with—his use of drones, for starters—but I’ve been so focused on how much I love having a cool, brilliant, literary POTUS, how much I’m going to miss having him in office, I’ve let the other stuff slide from my brain. My activist muscles have started to atrophy.
I guess I do know what happened. I had a baby six years ago and my mom killed herself one week later, and it took a long time for me to regain my footing. The years since have been filled with various other family and health crises, some quite severe. I’ve needed time to regroup, recover, rebuild. But I know people take to the streets even after they’ve been through much worse. I can make all the excuses in the world and it’s not going to help anyone—not even myself.
HOW IS IT POSSIBLE I WROTE THIS JUST A FEW MONTHS AGO?! I AM AN ACTIVIST 24/7 THESE DAYS, DOING WHATEVER I CAN TO HELP WITH THE RESISTANCE. I CAN’T IMAGINE SITTING ON THE SIDELINES NOW.
Press (verb): forcefully put forward (an opinion, claim, or course of action)
Pool (noun): a small and rather deep body of usually fresh water
The pre-Obama speakers—Senators Barbara Boxer, Diane Feinstein and Harry Reid, California Governor Jerry Brown, and Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management of the US Department of the Interior Janice Schneider—file onto the stage, and Michael joins the group of photographers who are being ushered to a closer spot.
The camaraderie amongst the speakers seems warm and genuine. Harry Reid says that after working together for over 30 years, Barbara Boxer is like a sister to him. Boxer and Diane Feinstein kiss each other affectionately each time they pass each other on the stage. And it’s clear the speakers have a deep love for Lake Tahoe, that they are all working hard to keep it blue. I tell myself that as a journalist, I need to be objective, to be critical, to not get swept up in the feel-good emotion of all of this, but then I remember I’m not really a journalist. That maybe it’s okay to feel good about politics for a moment, especially in the midst of this nasty election cycle.
JOURNALISTS, DO YOU HEAR ME?! DON’T LET YOURSELVES FALL INTO SUCH A FEEL GOOD STUPOR WITH OUR NEW ADMINISTRATION (IF THAT IS EVEN POSSIBLE)! YOU NEED TO KEEP STATING OBJECTIVE FACTS—NOT “ALTERNATIVE FACTS”, BUT REAL FACTS. AND YOU NEED TO CALL TRUMP AND HIS SWAMP MONSTERS OUT WHENEVER THEY SAY SOMETHING DESPICABLE. DON’T NORMALIZE!!
The speakers remind us that while we’re here to celebrate progress—the lake is supposedly much cleaner than when Harry Reid organized the first Lake Tahoe Summit 20 years ago—we can’t be complacent; there is still much work to do. Diane Feinstein tells us Tahoe is getting warmer faster than any lake in the world; I can believe it—right now, the sun feels like it’s boring a hole through the back of my dress. Climate change poses a growing threat to the lake, making it more susceptible to wildfires, to invasive species; we have to find ways to slow the damage.
Jerry Brown talks a lot about beauty, how beauty transcends politics, how the human imagination is so nourished by the beauty here, it inspires Democrats and Republicans to work together to save it.
DEMOCRATS AND REPUBLICANS—HOW ABOUT YOU SHOW US YOU CAN WORK TOGETHER TO STOP A FASCIST!
Janice Schneider speaks about the importance of wildfire prevention; she mentions a law with an acronym pronounced “Sniblema”, at least as I hear it—later I realize she’s saying “Sniplema”, for SNPLMA, the Southern Nevada Public Land Management Act, but it sounds like “Sniblema” to me over the speakers. A lot of people snicker when she mentions the name, and she laughs, too, assures us she didn’t come up with it, herself. I love it, though. I love it so much. It sounds like a word my dad would have made up. I can imagine him saying it in an exaggerated Yiddish accent, splaying his fingers and sticking out his tongue for emphasis. Sniblema!
WILL SNPLMA EVEN EXIST ONCE THIS ADMINISTRATION IS THROUGH SLASHING EVERYTHING GOOD AND HUMANE AND SCIENTIFIC AND ARTISTIC FROM THE BUDGET? WILL WE EVER BE ABLE TO CELEBRATE ENVIRONMENTAL PROGRESS AGAIN? I KNOW I AM YELLING, AND POSSIBLY BEING HYPERBOLIC, BUT THIS IS SERIOUS, PEOPLE.
Press (verb): squeeze or crush (fruit, vegetables, etc.) to extract the juice or oil
Pool (noun): something resembling a pool <a pool of light>
Harry Reid starts to introduce Obama. “He has done more with his pen than any president to protect our natural resources,” he says, and I get all fluttery. I love how Obama uses a pen—what a joy it’s been to have a real writer in the White House, someone who knows how to wield words with compassion and power. And then there he is, our president, on the stage in pale blue shirtsleeves, and I lose my mind. I scream and don’t care how I look or sound, tears in my eyes. It’s a good thing I’ve given up on journalistic objectivity.
LET ME SAY IT AGAIN: JOURNALISTS—DON'T GIVE UP ON JOURNALISTIC OBJECTIVITY BUT ALSO DON’T HESITATE TO CALL TRUMP OUT, TO NAME LIES LIES, TO STAND UP FOR WHAT IS JUST AND TRUE.
“Hello, Tahoe,” he says, and it’s so cool to hear his voice in person, that familiar voice talking directly to us. “This is really nice. I’ll be coming here more often. My transportation won’t be nearly as nice, but I’ll be able to spend more time here.”
He’s funny and personable; he uses great concrete detail, great verbs—all the things I urge my students to do in their work.
NOTE: UNLIKE OUR CURRENT PRESIDENT, WHO SAYS HE HAS “ALL THE WORDS” BUT ONLY USES ABOUT FIVE OF THEM, AND NEVER SOUNDS LIKE HE KNOWS WHAT HE’S TALKING ABOUT.
He talks about how it’s been said that if you’re out in the middle of Lake Tahoe, the water is so deep and clear, it feels like you’re in a hot air balloon (“unless you’re Fredo,” he jokes. He’s already mentioned The Godfather II is his favorite movie; it’s one of the reasons he’s excited to be here.) He talks about the Washoe people, how Lake Tahoe is the center of their world, how if this place is sacred to Native Americans, it should be sacred to all Americans. I love that he acknowledges the native people of the region, that he’s clearly done his research. He quotes a Washoe elder, who said "The health of the land and the health of the people are tied together, and what happens to the land also happens to the people.”
MEANWHILE, OUR NEW PRESIDENT PLOWED THROUGH THE WATER PROTECTORS TO LAY A PIPELINE HE HAS A FINANCIAL STAKE IN.
Two women move into the aisle near the stage and unfurl a banner between them. I can see the paint backwards through the fabric—“Keep our gas in the ground.” I flash back to a time when I stood with Jodie Evans, co-founder of the women’s peace organization CODEPINK, holding a banner between us that said “Don’t Buy Bush’s War” during a speech by Congresswoman Hilda Solis. My heart had hammered so hard as we disrupted her talk; I wonder if these women’s hearts are galloping, too. It takes courage to interrupt a President. I send a beam of support their way, even as I’m eager for his talk to resume.
“I got ya,” Obama tells them. “That’s a great banner.” He assures them he’s going to get to their subject soon.
DO YOU REMEMBER TRUMP TELLING HIS FOLLOWERS TO ROUGH A PROTESTOR UP DURING THE CAMPAIGN? SAYING IT WAS THE GOOD OLD DAYS WHEN PROTESTORS WOULD LEAVE ON A STRETCHER? DO YOU KNOW SIX JOURNALISTS WERE ARRESTED FOR SIMPLY COVERING PROTESTS DURING THE INAUGURATION? THAT REPUBLICAN GOVERNORS ARE TRYING TO PASS LAWS TO MAKE PROTEST ILLEGAL OR MAKE IT LEGAL TO HIT A PROTESTOR WITH A CAR? TRUMP IS NEVER GOING TO SAY “THAT’S A GREAT BANNER” TO A PROTESTOR WHEN ANYONE WHO DARES TO CRITIQUE HIM IS CONSIDERED THE ENEMY.
“Conservation is more than putting up a plaque and calling it a park,” Obama says, and talks about how conservation helps the land build resilience to climate change. Our conservation mission is more urgent than ever, he tells us. “We do it to free more of our communities and plants and animals and species from wildfires, and droughts, and displacement.” I am utterly rapt, my writing in my notebook a jumble because I’m looking at him, not the page.
“Places like this restore the soul,” he says. So do talks like this. By the time he leaves the stage, waving and smiling, I am crying again, full of resolve and hope.
I’M TRYING TO REMEMBER WHAT HOPE FEELS LIKE. I FELT IT DURING THE WOMEN’S MARCH. I FELT IT THE NEXT DAY. IT COMES BACK IN FITS AND STARTS, KEEPS ME GOING, KEEPS ME RESISTING, BUT THAT HOPE IS HARDER TO ACCESS NOW, GLINTING UNDER LAYERS OF DESPAIR AND DISBELIEF AND OUTRAGE.
Press (verb): squeeze (someone's arm or hand) as a sign of affection.
Pool (verb): to combine (as resources) in a common pool or effort
As we walk to our car, we run into Janice Schneider from the Department of the Interior standing on the corner, suit jacket draped over one arm. I am starstruck. Obama had said one of the best parts of his job is having relationships with people who do the right thing, despite the haters and the naysayers; he acknowledged all the people on the stage, including her.
“That was wonderful,” I tell her. “Thank you for all you’re doing.”
“You’re doing a great job here,” she says as we shake hands. “Keep up the good work.”
What am I doing? I wonder. Not enough. Never enough. I wonder if she thinks I’m someone else, if she thinks I’m doing something I’m not, something great, until I realize she must mean the collective “you”, the people of Lake Tahoe “you.” I vow to do more as part of that collective “you”, that collective “us”; I vow to do more, in general.
I STILL VOW TO DO MORE. TO DO MORE AND MORE AND MORE. TO NOT STOP RESISTING, TO KEEP MY RESOLVE EVEN WHEN HOPE IS HARD TO REACH.
After we head off in our separate directions, I am tempted to turn and yell “Sniblema!” but manage to suppress the urge.
Press (verb): continue in one’s action
Pool (noun): a quiet place in a stream
The road home hugs the lake, and I stare out at its expanse, the way the colors shift—turquoise near the shore, a deeper blue near the center. Something in me relaxes when I see the lake; some deep part of me lets go of whatever anxiety I’ve been carrying in my body. I hold the Press Pool pass against my belly and take a deep breath, feel the badge move with me. We came to Tahoe when I was invited to be a visiting professor/writer in residence for a year; we stayed because we had fallen in love with the place. I need to remember this when I feel like a fraud (which is way too often)—my writing brought us to this beauty, and while my pen is not nearly as mighty as our president’s, perhaps my writing can find some small way to help keep this beauty alive. My activist muscles twitch beneath my skin. The sun sends a broad swath of sparkles across the water; the lake winks at us all the way home.
MY ACTIVIST MUSCLES HAVE BEEN GETTING QUITE THE WORKOUT SINCE THEN. I’VE REALIZED I’VE GIVEN WAY TOO MUCH TIME AND ENERGY TO SELF-DOUBT, TO FEELING LIKE AN IMPOSTER, TO HOLDING MY TONGUE—IT’S HOW THOSE IN POWER WANT US TO FEEL, WANT US TO ACT. IT’S TIME TO CLAIM OUR OWN POWER, USE OUR VOICE. VIVA LA RESISTANCE!
Gayle Brandeis is the author of Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write (HarperOne), and the novels The Book of Dead Birds (HarperCollins), which won the Bellwether Prize for Fiction of Social Engagement, Self Storage (Ballantine), Delta Girls (Ballantine), and My Life with the Lincolns (Henry Holt Books for Young Readers), which received a Silver Nautilus Book Award and was chosen as a state-wide read in Wisconsin. Two books are forthcoming in 2017, a memoir, The Art of Misdiagnosis: Surviving My Mother's Suicide (Beacon Press) and a collection of poetry, The Selfless Bliss of the Body (Finishing Line Press). Her poetry, essays and short fiction have appeared in such places as The Rumpus, Salon, and The San Francisco Chronicle, and have received many honors, including a Barbara Mandigo Kelly Peace Poetry Award and a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2016. She currently teaches for the low residency MFA programs at Sierra Nevada College and Antioch University, Los Angeles.