“I didn’t raise you to do something like that,” my mother said to me – and I swear I could almost see icicles forming on her tongue.
“Actually,” I responded, “You raised me to do exactly that.”
To fully understand this story, it’s essential that you know two things:
1. I will do anything for my brother.
2. I will go anywhere if there’s even the slightest chance that a pig in a blanket will make an appearance.
It was with those two factors dancing like alcohol-poisoned sugarplums in my mind that I agreed to accompany several members of my family to a political fundraiser just a few days ago. Those events are not typically my thing. I don’t own a business so I don’t view a proximity to politicians as a necessary evil and I generally tend to not want to attend gatherings that are fueled by very small glasses of wine and stilted, albeit polite, chatter. The only political events I’ve attended over the last decade were ones my family hosted or events they were honored at and to those I’d show up on time and I’d smile at everyone and eventually I’d go hide out in the kitchen so I could snag the appetizers first and also pump the caterers for tips about how to make a platter of food look extra pretty. The best tip I ever got was to form the dough around the mini hotdog into the shape of a daisy and then poke that sucker through and whammo: a pig in a blanket in the shape of a flower is born! Then you shove sticks into them to give it all some height and plunge the sticks into some wheatgrass and the whole thing comes out looking like a blooming garden of nitrate deliciousness. I had a ton of them made for a party I threw to celebrate the release of my first book and those blossoming piggies looked so beautiful I almost cried.
I try to be consistently mindful of that which I appreciate, and one of the things that makes me feel fortunate is how nobody in my family attempts to get me to show up at events I have little to no interest in attending. I will attend a birthday dinner for every person and every pet in the family. I will show up with a thoughtful present and a homemade cake that’s covered in several deep layers of frosting. I will go to graduations in the stagnant heat and I will plaster a smile across my face at recorder concerts held in elementary school auditoriums. I’ll even show up at school plays where my nephew plays a toad, but I will put my high-heeled foot down and stare at you full in the face without any hint of amusement if you even attempt to guilt me into going somewhere I simply have no reason to be. That sort of determined mindset is not something I was born with; that mindset and my commitment to it is something that took a long time to develop and I’m far prouder of it than I am of the way my chest majestically developed on one twilit evening when I was fifteen.
But about two years ago, I somewhat randomly agreed to show up at a Congressional fundraiser. My mother had other plans that evening (she was at some event learning how to make challah – an activity so random that I wouldn’t be able to make something like that up even if I wanted to) and my stepfather asked if I’d go with him. He’s always been very good to me, but the real reason I decided to go was because I’d just bought a new dress and I wanted a place to wear it. Perhaps more strategically, I thought there was a far better chance of a gorgeous man walking into that event than there was of a gorgeous man somehow appearing in my living room and I guess I was just in a place in my life when I was on the hunt for some gorgeousness. I ended up having a really nice time that evening. I met a few people I connected with and I’ve stayed in touch with them to this day and I beamed with pride whenever I saw someone seek out my stepfather and engage him in conversation because, for maybe the first time, I acknowledged who he is as a businessman instead of just who he is as a member of my family and I was finally savvy enough to catch the overt signs that prove someone has power:
Sign #1: If you’re powerful, you never have to move. Everyone comes to you.
Sign #2: When people are nervous to speak to you, their voices will sound extra breathy and they’re quick to laughter, even when nothing that’s been said is even remotely funny.
Sign #3: Being inundated by a roomful of people gracing you with their presence means it’s hard to snag appetizers – and that probably means power is incredibly overrated.
I remember standing with a guy I met that evening in a corner of the room and having an in-depth conversation about why Jon Stewart is a genius when the politician we were all there to allegedly celebrate got up to make a speech. I’d met him earlier in the evening. He was perfectly nice and he had a firm handshake and he looked like a cardboard cutout with his generic handsomeness and his crisp navy suit. I knew he’d been in the military, that he had two small children, and I suppose I admire anybody who has a dream of running for office and then makes it a reality because that’s not an easy thing to do. I knew, of course, that he represented a different political party than my own, but it’s not like I’d never been in an environment where people with diverging values surrounded me. I mean, I show up to Thanksgiving every single year and I pass the stuffing to someone who believes every single word that dribbles out of Sean Hannity’s mouth. Being the lone Democrat in the room was nothing new.
What I didn’t expect – what I didn’t even know that I should appropriately prepare for – was the mild layer of shock that took up residence in my brain when the Congressman began taking light jabs at President Obama, pointed mini-jokes that evoked roars of laughter. Since several members of my family had already spent six years classifying Obama as just slightly less incompetent than a troglodyte coming off anesthesia after a lobotomy surgery, this politician’s comments didn’t surprise me. After all, he knew the kind of room he was playing to. What I did react to was the nodding of all the other people in the room who surrounded this man in a haphazard semicircle. The bobbing of heads was almost done in unison, like it had been choreographed in a meeting of a flash mob that had been held in Ann Coulter’s living room. There are a lot of people who believe very different things than I believe, I remember thinking to myself. And it will always be this way.
I didn’t leave that event feeling angry. If anything, I was amused by the reality smashing me in the face, the kind of reality I was able to ignore on a moment to moment basis because most of the people I communicated with regularly about politics – either in person or over social media – tended to gravitate towards the same beliefs I have. I decided it was high time that I verse myself on what it is that other people choose to support and why they come to those conclusions. On the drive home, my stepfather and I spoke about the racial tension still reverberating throughout the country and we bandied about different theories about the origins of the conflict and I steadfastly disagreed with him and he just as fervently disavowed everything I said and then we arrived at my house and I kissed him on his cheek and thanked him for the night and told him that I loved him.
That’s how it used to be.
On this Election Day, my eyes filled with tears as I marked my ballot. It wasn’t a blind sentimentality that caused my reaction. I wasn’t emotional because I was voting for a woman for the first time. Rather, I cried because I was afraid that someone who had campaigned on a rickety platform of vague promises and pointed hatred would be elected. I was afraid that more of the nation would choose an incompetent over a liar. And I was terrified that the surveys that were being conducted on the spot outside of voting locations were showing vastly different results than any of the polls I’d seen in newspapers for months. He’s going to win, I admitted to myself. A man who has never once considered apologizing for all of his staggering lies – a man who never even considers taking the high road – is going to be our President.
In those heady days that followed, the world appeared blurry. There was a palpable feeling of dread that pulsated through every room I entered and I experienced the crush of emotional claustrophobia for the very first time. The shared and constant commiseration began to annoy me. All those yellow Post-It notes stuck to the wall of the faculty bathroom with quickly scrawled affirmations like, “We will rise!” did the opposite of what they were meant to do. I didn’t gaze at those messages and feel a part of a community; I looked at those flimsy slips of yellow paper and wanted to cram them down the sink. See, it wasn’t fear I felt. The fear came later when the President-elect announced his choice for Secretary of Education and also vowed to defund Planned Parenthood. What I felt in those first few days was anger. I was angry that so many people didn’t vote. I was angry that in an election so important, people wasted a vote on a third party candidate. I was angry that not one of the graphs I’d relied upon for comfort over the last several months had indicated anything but a resounding Hillary Clinton victory and I was furious that she hadn’t annihilated her opponent in the debates in the way that she could have because she had falsely convinced herself that what this country craved was decency.
I banned political conversation at the Thanksgiving dinner held a few weeks after the election. I called or texted everyone individually to announce that decree and, to their credit, everyone agreed to table that sort of divisive discussion for another time, like when we’re all crammed in an elevator that’s plunging us twenty floors to our deaths. I stopped checking Facebook after a while because I felt like ravenous gnats were crawling across my skin every time I saw another seventy-paragraph essay about the ways in which the new President would destroy society as we know it. I empathized with the projected fear, but I didn’t want to read about it unless that fear was followed up with a solution. And then I started to see what the Trump voters were saying and it seriously blew my mind. The common thread tying all their comments together seemed to focus on how they had never resorted to blubbering after Obama won, so we should all get over it – and reading those kind of remarks made me feel like I was drowning in a septic sea of shit and it was something I finally had to respond to.
I did it privately. A former neighbor was the person who threw the comment that left me dumbfounded me out there, and rather than invite strangers to react to my still-complicated thoughts or make her feel in any way defensive, I sent her a direct message:
I have not responded to anything on Facebook regarding someone else's political beliefs this entire election cycle, but I'm moved to respond here. You know I think the world of you and your family, so you need to remember I say all of this with affection. I voted for Clinton. She was not my first choice. I did not vote for her in the primary. I believe she's been involved in a lot of corruption. But this election -- for me -- came down to deciding whose view of society I could stomach based on what is most important to me. And those things involved human decency and not giving up a high court to people who want to repeal rights I personally find essential. I emphatically voted against Trump because I think he's a bigot based entirely on his actions and I have the right to feel that as much as you do to not think that. But what this election proved is that more than half the country has a very different belief system than I do and that belief system is now in power across the board and it's a very uncomfortable headspace to find oneself in. This election has been so divisive because it comes down to what people at their heart think matters most and those whose beliefs were not protected now feel afraid. This is not a crybaby situation. This is not about sour grapes. This is simply terrifying. That said, I will personally pummel anyone harassing you because you're too good of a person for that. But please understand where the good people (who are not harassing you and wouldn't think of doing so) are coming from.
She wrote me back a lovely note and thanked me for taking the time to explain how I felt and she said that she understood. That note also included the line, “Yes, Trump is a bigot,” but she explained that she chose to overlook such a thing, a comment that blew my entire fucking mind. I mean, she didn’t overlook that the guy is lactose-intolerant – she chose to brush aside the very belief that the man, at his core, is motivated by bigotry. Still, that was her choice and she has a right to make that choice. But what really came out of that exchange for me was the dawning understanding that we all feel what we feel so deeply at this point that a common ground – even a fractured or sloping one – no longer even partially exists.
I’ve had some very long discussions with a friend who voted for Trump and we usually bicker for about an hour about stupid shit like whether or not Meryl Streep is overrated (she’s not – and I finally flat-out said, “Do you really want to argue with me about movies?” and then that conversation finally came to an end) before we move on and talk about better things. But what I realize now is that we all receive the same information and as long as you don’t get all of your information from an outlet that is completely skewed towards one party, you can walk away from that information with an informed opinion. My opinion isn’t shared by far more people than I’d once thought – and that’s an understanding I’ve chosen to accept because to not accept such a thing would be even more idiotic than shrugging off that someone’s a bigot and then electing him into office.
I’ve somewhat mastered the art of politely disagreeing with people at this point in my life. I get my views out there, listen carefully to someone else’s views, state that I emphatically disagree but that I respect their commitment to their beliefs, and move on with a smile. I’m not sure if it’s seen by others to be an antiquated quality, but I’ve always subscribed to the notion that having grace is better than having the tightest ass in all the land. Grace gets you out of divisive conversations smoothly. Grace allows you to respect yourself and allows the person with whom you’re politely brawling to feel respected as well. I’ve never tossed and turned in bed in the darkest hours of the night and wished I’d been less graceful in a situation.
Perhaps that’s why I became so furious the other night when I found myself once again at some fundraiser for a man who voted along party lines and helped elect our new President. I have no real problem with someone deciding that his own political aspirations matter because I’m, in many ways, realistic enough to know most people worry about their own interests first. Anyway, I had no real desire to show up at this event, but it was being held three minutes from my home and my brother called to say he had a few extra tickets and would I like to join him? Like I said, I’ll do anything my brother asks of me because I know it’s the kind of dynamic that is reciprocal and I figured there’d be pigs in blankets there. I drove myself so I could leave whenever I wanted and I got out of the car and realized that I wasn’t sure which entrance of the building I should use. As I stood in the light misting rain and tried to figure out where to go before my hair completely surrendered to a state of frizz, I saw two men climb out of an SUV. “Excuse me,” I said. “Are you going to the fundraiser?” They both turned to look at me and I laughed because one of the men was the person we were all there to honor.
“Hello, Congressman,” I said with a smile. “I’m Nell. I’m Harriet and Jack’s daughter.”
“Oh, yes. We’ve met before,” he responded and reached out to shake my hand before he introduced me to his aide.
The three of us crossed the street together and I decided this was my chance. I was a citizen attending a political event for an elected official three days before an inauguration that scared the bejeezus out of me and if there was ever a time to be heard, the time was now.
“There’s a possibility I will be the only Democrat here tonight,” I told him. “And I just want to take a moment to tell you that I support many of your platforms, but I also very much hope that you will hold this lunatic to the same standards as every other President. I trust you will stay mindful about all the issues so many of us are concerned with and be sure to hold the President-elect accountable should he violate any laws.”
The Congressman chuckled nervously and said something vague about how this was a difficult time for many and then we arrived at the door. The first person I saw was my brother. The Congressman greeted him by name and I smiled because my brother is totally a grown up now. As we walked inside, I told him what I’d just said and he smiled and replied, “I believe differently than you believe, but I love that you will say what you think.”
That right there was a normal response.
When I told my mother and my stepfather about my mini conversation with the Congressman, they were horrified.
“There are some things you just don’t say,” stated my stepfather, a man who has never once rolled a sentence over in his mind before blurting it out into the world.
“I didn’t raise you to do something like that,” my mother said while we stood next to the bar and ordered glasses of club soda with lime.
“Actually,” I said flatly, “you raised me to do exactly that.”
I meant what I said to her. I inherited a lot from my father and I’m grateful for all of it. My sense of humor comes from him. My ability to take a joke comes from him. The dimples in my cheeks match the ones he had denting his cheeks. But the ability to say something respectfully to someone who would disagree with the content of my message but would still listen because of the manner in which it was said comes directly from my mother. She’s also the one who taught me the importance of Planned Parenthood, by the way – but I guess we all change over time.
“I said nothing wrong,” I informed her.
“You shouldn’t have used the word ‘lunatic,’” she replied.
“That word is extremely accurate,” I responded – and that’s when I walked away and approached the aide I’d met outside and told him that if my comments had come across as rude, I was sorry because that wasn’t my intention.
“You were the opposite of rude,” he said with a smile. “You stated your concerns very respectfully.”
I left before the Congressman made his speech. It was late and there were no pigs in blankets and some man tapped me on the shoulder and asked me if I was “one of those Liberals,” to which I responded, “No. I’m a moderate Democrat who is rather well informed.”
“What do you think of John Lewis’ comments?” he asked.
“I think that when someone spends an entire election cycle ranting and raving about voter fraud and how broken the system is and only accepts results in which he wins and then disregards information gathered by the CIA about how his victory might have been part of a fixed election, he has to expect that some people will view him as less than legitimate.”
The man turned away from me while I was still finishing my response to the question he had asked me.
“Excuse me,” I said. “If you ask me a question, you should allow me to answer it.” Then I got up and walked away. I walked away temporarily from family members I’ve supported through thick and thin and I walked away from a room filled with people who are educated and informed and will never believe in the same things I do. And then I drove home and walked inside and knelt down beside my puppy and laughed as her tail whipped back and forth so quickly because she was just that excited to see me. I sank down onto the floor of my kitchen and let her crawl up my chest so she could lick my face and I smoothed back her ears and whispered softly, “There’s no common ground anymore, Tallulah. But at least I have you.”
Nell Kalter teaches Film and Media at a school in New York. She is the author of the books THAT YEAR and STUDENT, both available on amazon.com in paperback and for your Kindle. Also be sure to check out her website at nellkalter.com Her Twitter is @nell_kalter