miscellany · politics

Labels and absolutes, part 1

My boyfriend’s grammie just turned 90 years old. I met her a couple of summers ago, when I went with him on his annual family trip to the beach. She gets nervous on the highway, so she rode in the car with me and I made sure to drive like a model citizen. We listened to the Frank Sinatra Siri station in her wide, white Cadillac (they get a new one every two or three years) and she told me about growing up in New York City, how Frank and the Rockettes would perform before a feature film. She could pay a nickel and see them in the pre-show. (Nostalgia may be tainting her recollections, as the average cost of a movie ticket during her childhood was about a quarter. I would not be surprised to see her in this crowd, though – she would have been 17 in 1944.)

My grandparents passed when I was a kid. If they were alive today, their ages would range from 84 to 99. I like to think we would be close, that I would make them feel as loved and secure as they once made me feel. I was truly pleased to meet Craig’s grandparents, both just shy of 90 at the time. His granddad was struggling physically and hard of hearing, but that didn’t stop him from engaging in lively, thoughtful conversation that really made you feel like he listened deeply and cared about you. Grammie got around better, so she stuck with her own routine and took care of some of the things he struggled to do for himself.

I like her. I think she’s feisty, storied, interesting, and proud (for better and for worse). She dotes on her great-grandchildren and the only breed of dog she likes, she doesn’t just like, she adores. They’re King Charles Cavalier Spaniels because of course they are. Every day, she prepares a plate of snacks and gin martinis with a twist for cocktail hour (the children get fruit punch). I could happily spend a solid week getting to know her, listening to her stories without ever calling her bluff on things like movie ticket prices.

Grammie has misgivings about me because I have blue streaks in my hair and I like to sleep in.

Our afternoon cocktail served as a social lubricant, bringing out our wit. The family watched, baffled, as we giggled and shrieked, lightweight and medicated as we were. Day drinking has not become my habit, but it was a fun vacation ritual and a throwback to 25 years before I was born.

She did seem to warm up to me during brief moments, like when I gently reminded her to take her pill with dinner, when I enforced her rule about children having to sleep in their beds (not the couch), when I put on my hat before going out. “No one wears hats anymore,” she said, “You look nice.” Overall, though, my appearance and lifestyle are a bit much for her wealthy, WASPy, Fox News watching mind to trust and accept as part of her family.

It doesn’t bother me, because by the time I’m 90, if I’m a little set in my ways the world can deal with it. I deal with it, and love and respect her nonetheless.

Craig loves her in a more attached way, of course, having known and cherished her all his life. It frustrates him that she sometimes digs her heels in where he feels a reasonable person wouldn’t even tread. She might conjure some fictional “how it used to be” in order to make a point, absorb the fury of a Fox News Channel pundit as though he is an objective newsman, or disapprove of a woman who makes her grandson happy because blue hair and sleeping in. How do you argue that? You don’t. You accept it, or you leave.

If a disagreement was political in nature — and I would not go there, mind you, being new to the family; such disagreements I left to her own daughter and grandson to voice — her final word would be, “That’s just my opinion.” And her word was final! Even if the opinion was based on incomplete data, twisted facts, misrepresented information or complete lies, It Was Just Her Opinion, and it was sacred. To disrespect the Just Her Opinion was to disrespect her. I hear this a lot from the Right, from the center to the fringes, from the young and the old, and mostly from women who take pride in keeping the family close: Well, that’s just my opinion. Well, let’s agree to disagree.

More aggressive, purple-faced types will fling accusations and taunts, of course: I thought you liberals were supposed to be tolerant. You need to respect everybody’s opinion or else your passion for social justice is baloney, and so on.

No, Grammie is not aggressive and purple-faced, she’s a woman who demonstrates self-respect by keeping her private thoughts. She stands in contrast to the loud, forthright, democratic rabble, where conversations can range from informative, respectful, and enlightening discourse to (unfortunately common) buzzword-addled mudslinging bumper sticker recitations.  Because I strive for the former, I’m a big believer in publicizing political views, but because the latter is so pervasive, I admit there’s an appeal to the old-world etiquette of never discussing politics at the dinner table. When you share family time instead of dissecting each other’s differing worldviews, knowledge, awareness, values, and positions, not only do you get to keep enjoying family time, you also avoid the awful feeling of being reduced to a label even for a moment.

As a bisexual, I have forgotten what it’s like to be labelless. Yes, being labelless is a privilege. Yes, privilege is what allows people to be free of labels and the baggage that comes with them, the assumptions and prejudice; and yes, privileged people fight being labeled as such so fiercely because it turns out they don’t like how it feels to be reduced to a Social Problem.

Well, nobody does. Some of us have gotten used to it and some of us haven’t, and all of us tend to react to it as a form of injustice even when the label isn’t meant to be marginalizing but rather constructively deconstructive (“privileged”), and even when it, damn it, fits (“deplorable” applied specifically and exclusively to white supremacists, oh the humanity).

Truthfully, Grammie is a privileged, upper class white conservative woman from a different generation. She believes no one deserves a free ride and everyone can pull themselves up by their bootstraps and that capitalists are good people (and, to be fair, she married just about the sweetest, kindest, most generous and neighborly capitalist I’ve ever met). She has struggled, but she seems to have forgotten, or rather to have removed those data points from her life, as they don’t fit the pattern of the worldview she’s developed. Struggle is a negligible variable, simplified out for convenience so she can explain the world.

I am a fool for analyzing her. She isn’t a puzzle. She is a data point in my worldview, yet/and I can’t simplify her out. Fox News and waking up early is not like blue hair and sleeping in. Even though I can’t equivocate Fox News, a media monolith that deliberately airs sensationalist, divisive, agenda-driven and demonstrably unethical journalistic practices with blue hair, a trendy hair color. One harms people and society. The other is harmless. One can imagine an abandonment of hair color norms teetering on a slippery slope which leads to abandonment of morals and wholesome values, but that is a baseless fear.  “Slippery slope” describes a fallacy. Criticism of Fox News can be validated; it is not Just My Opinion, it is a strongly supported opinion.

And I can’t tolerate being in the room when it’s on. I will yell at the television.

I can’t tolerate some of the views carelessly aired by media outlets on the right and the alt-right. At best they are ill-informed and at worst they are incendiary. For that matter, I can’t tolerate some of the views aired on the left, especially on social media where an “if you’re not with me, you’re against us” one-upmanship approach to being the wokest of the woke has fractured our coalition-dependent base and resulted in this shitty political situation in the White House and Congress.

But Grammie, I’ll tolerate. It’s not just because she’s 90. As other 90-year-olds and elders have demonstrated, being older doesn’t necessarily mean championing conservatism. It’s not because Craig loves her, even though I think it’s wonderful that he gets to have a relationship with her. It’s because she’s a person, a person I like, a person I would defend if anyone tried to hurt her, a person I forgive even if those “just her opinions” hurt me and my loved ones in a real way. I can’t explain this. I don’t accept being crucified, but I do embrace “forgive them, they know not what they do.” An optimistic view, perhaps: Pontius Pilate knew exactly what he was doing, Judas knew what he was doing, the bloodthirsty crowd never bothered to think about what they were doing because bloodthirsty crowds are like that, but we can be better than that, and some folks on the left insist we be better than that with such conviction they won’t accept less. Sometimes I rally with them. Other times, I work to convince our enemies that we’re not, ourselves, a bloodthirsty mob. I kiss Judas back. Take that, I say, not sure what the seed of forbearance will grow into, given time; and wishing people would realize that some folks don’t have time. Refugees are fleeing now, queer teens are committing suicide now, women need reproductive care now. Veterans need support and police departments need reform and people need affordable health care now because we keep losing people. I can’t wait, but I am patient.

It’s no wonder I live peacefully with Grammie, because I live peacefully with my own inconsistent radicalism, in like a lion and out like a lamb; I live peacefully with my moderation (in moderation). I know that people suffer when districts swing in favor of, for instance, for-profit prisons, but nobody suffers when I choose to love an old lady for who she is.

After Granddad died, I told Craig he should go to visit his grammie, even though his usual vacation weeks coincided with our baby’s due date. I told him I could handle the last weeks of pregnancy and the first few weeks of motherhood without him, because (a) it was my first child and I was totally wrong, in no universe could I have handled all that on my own, omg and (b) it was Grammie’s first summer without Granddad, and I didn’t want her to be too lonely.

When he told her he was considering a visit around our due date, she said,

“If my husband went to the beach when I was having a baby, he’d come back to a house with changed locks. I don’t care if she told you it was okay. It’s not.” She had my back, nevertheless.


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