In Which I Become One of Them

new yorker

I was one of those kids. The kind who read everything. Books. Magazines. Newspapers. The sides of cereal boxes. I was always reading. Pretty much, I am still that way. I may not know what some of the ingredients in my canned soup are, but by golly, I read them.

I grew up in Richmond, Virginia. My hometown papers were the Richmond Times-Dispatch and the Richmond News-Leader.  My family got them both. Our coffee table had Time magazine, Southern Living and Reader’s Digest.  A pretty conservative batch, all of them, and they shaped, as much as my parents, my politics.

Publications like the New York Times and The New Yorker were, to quote my father, “Big city, effete, snobbish, liberal” publications. (I am pretty sure he stole the line from Spiro Agnew, for those of us who have lived ancient history,.). As a kid, I wasn’t sure what effete meant, but the way he said it told me I didn’t want to be one. And that emphasis on the word liberal, made me absolutely sure, ABSOLUTELY sure that I didn’t want to be one of those. It was almost as bad as being a Yankee.

My dad had a thing against Yankees. The entire kit and caboodle of them folks that lived above the Mason Dixon line, not the team. Yankees were the embodiment of all that was wrong with the world. Rude. Unfriendly. and liberal. 

The odd thing is that he liked individual people from the North East. We discovered a set of cousins from New York when I was fifteen, and they became my family’s favorite cousins. I dated a young woman in college from New Jersey, and my parents liked her a lot. But my dad could not help reminding them that they were Yankees. And I think he always suspected they were liberals. “They probably read the New Yorker.” he would say.  He disliked the Yankee race. He loved the individual people  (There’s another essay in that, I think.)

We had a family friend that read the New Yorker. I am sure that in my father’s mind, she was suspect, despite being a born and bred Virginian. Once a month or so, she would drop off the past month’s issues.

I didn’t dare read them. I read the cartoons. That was allowed for some reason. But actually reading that magazine would have been like reading Playboy in front of your parents. Just the articles of course. But in my case, just the cartoons, sir.

My suspicion was that my mom actually read the articles, and I appreciated her radicalness and courage in doing so in the same house as my father. She was a quiet sort of radical, my mom.

Of course, we grow up. We leave home. And the theory is that we develop our own way of thinking after we leave home. We leave behind the things of our childhood and make up our own minds.

I question that idea sometimes. I have come to know way too many people, from all walks of life, whose thoughts, feelings and opinions are still driven by childhood, and the things they were told, the things they heard, and the things they read when they were young. Their idea of discourse is a cute, and often poorly thought out one-liner designed to shut out conversation, not encourage it.

Considering how I grew up, I should have been a lot like my father. Somehow that didn’t work out.

I moved to Roanoke, Virginia, where I lived for nearly thirty years. In college, and then in Roanoke, I came in contact with a lot of different people, from a lot of different walks of life. I rubbed elbows with the poor. I met transplants from all over the country, in fact, from all over the world. I spent long evenings and took long walks with people so unlike me that they were barely recognizable in my father’s world as “good people”.

For a time, I lived in an apartment complex, and catercorner from my apartment was a Persian family. We might be tempted to call them Iranian, but don’t tell this family they were Iranian, they would shake their fingers at you and say “No, no, no! Persian.”  They had trouble speaking English, although they read it well enough.

The patriarch was a big swarthy man who liked like a friendly pudgy Stalin. His wife was small and meek. Always dressed up, her hair in a prim bun. I don’t think I ever saw her without makeup and heels.  He had two daughters, lovely young women that I think he wanted to keep locked up from the dangers of American men. Somehow, though, he liked and trusted me. I spent many a night in their apartment, eating utterly unrecognizable food and talking.

Of course, they were suspect at first. Not just because they were Iranian (Oop, Persian), but on their coffee table were The New York Times, the New Yorker, and Atlantic magazine. It was utterly un-understandable to me. These people didn’t seem like “Big city, effete, snobbish, liberals”.  Far from it. They were as conservative as they could be, happy to be living in this small, Southern city.

And there were those magazines. I asked them once why they read those things, and not the local papers. (In Roanoke, that would have been the Roanoke Times, a safely conservative rag. I read it every day. My dad would have approved.) The patriarch was quick with an answer.  “I want to be a good American. And that means reading the best American writing.”

Hmmm.

I began borrowing their old issues. And I discovered this. The writing, the depth of the research and reporting was far deeper, far more thoughtful than anything I was used to reading.

Somewhere along the way, I transferred from being conservative to more liberal. The mix of meeting and actually getting to know people from the poorer side of life as people, not a group, changed me. My reading changed me.  My deeper understanding of how the world actually worked, as opposed the how theorists on both sides of the intellectual divide say it works.

2008. Election time. Obama was running. The economy was in the worst, most fragile shape since the Depression. I made the leap. I got my Obama sticker and put it on my old Isuzu Trooper.

My dad was appalled. Every time I went home to Richmond, he would razz me about it. And when he saw back issues of The New Yorker in the passenger seat, he realized he had lost me. I had gone to the dark side. It was the subject of many a conversation in our household. Civil discussions, but many of them ended with my dad shaking his head and saying ” I don’t know where I went wrong.”

Secretly though, and he once actually told me this, he was proud that I stood for what I stood for, even if he disagreed with the stance.

And then, of course, I moved to Vermont. And here I am, everything my father once derided. I live in Yankee land. I read those publications. His former Republican son has become liberal. I even married a woman from Massachusetts.

I have become one of them. Proudly. Unapologetically. With a Southern accent.

Actually, though, my dad did not fail. My mother did not fail. You see, despite being surrounded by only one side of the political divide in all the things we read and in the conversation around the house. (My dad dominated the conversation in our house.).  But both of my parents always taught us to think. To not accept things at face value. To look deeper into things and learn the facts. They also believed and lived the idea that people with different views could get along, and even love each other deeply.

THAT took. Big time. My sisters are variously to the right of me. But like me, they read a wide variety of publications. They don’t practice Meme arguments. Facts matter. A thoughtful process of learning and becoming matters.  The respect and love we have for each other is immense.

And even if I have become one of those people, who reads those publications, I also read conservative publications, like the Economist and others. Good writing. Good research. Good reporting. All added to our own experience. And all shrouded in love, and back issues of The New Yorker.

Be well. Trave wisely,

Tom

PS: My daughter is a bit more conservative than me. My son is fairly more liberal. But they both read, think and decide. They both know how to discuss without demonizing. Like my father, even when they are not where I am, I am proud of them.

3 comments

  1. I completely agree with Margie’s assessment as well, Tom. The thing that can tie us together — conservatives, moderates, liberals, progressives — is not our politics, but our love and respect for one another, if we can search within and find it in ourselves. It seems that your dad practiced that, as do you.
    We all need to be exposed to big ideas and visionary dreams, but they can drive us apart. Only when we care enough to share them in ways meaningful to others will we work past our differences to the better intents of our hearts.

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