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Saturday, November 28, 2015

Freedom, Ben Carson and Giving Thanks

On Thanksgiving the family sat around our table, toasted our collective health and happiness, and took turns saying what we were thankful for.

“I’m thankful that I can read,” said our six-year old, Abby. She just started Junie B Jones, her first chapter book, and she never rarely misses an opportunity to show off a little.

“I’m thankful for the moon,” said her younger brother, Noah. He’s recently developed an obsessive interest in outer-space.

“Good one,” said Natalie, my mother-in-law. “I’m thankful that none of our freedoms have been taken away, and that we can all sit here today and enjoy this lovely meal together with friends and family.”

Monty and I exchanged a look, a silent agreement to ignore the part about our freedoms “being taken away,” and to simply be gracious. But later, after dinner was over and people were watching television, a Ben Carson ad came on. 

“I have to say,” Natalie said, after Carson’s ad had played. “There’s something very likable about him. I think he makes sense.”

“Mom, no.” Monty’s voice had that overly-patient edge to it, like a dog-owner reprimanding his frisky puppy. So while I totally agreed with Monty philosophically, I couldn’t blame Natalie for her testy response.

“What do you mean, ‘no’? I’m not incompetent. I can pick my own candidate.”

Jack, Monty’s brother, busied himself by starting a tickle war with all the kids. I began straightening up. But Monty, who is never afraid of conflict, turned toward his mother and stared her down. “Ben Carson may seem rational, but he’s not. He’s compared Obamacare to slavery, and gun control to Nazi Germany. He thinks Muslims shouldn’t be allowed to be president, and that we ought to have separate, transgender bathrooms.”

Since Natalie is actually the one who taught Monty to embrace conflict, she scoffed and spoke over the frantic giggles of the children. “That’s ridiculous.”

“I know!” Monty grinned, obviously happy that his mother agreed with him.

“Women already have to stand in line far too long to use the toilet. If we’re going to build more bathrooms, we should just double the amount for females. Creating separate ones for these transgenders is a waste of resources.”

“Yeah, that’s a good point,” I interjected. “I mean… the part about more public restrooms for women.”

Monty shot me a squinty, exasperated look. After years of marriage, I knew exactly what it meant. Now was the time I was supposed to speak up and support him. I should convince his mother that she should absolutely not support Ben Carson.

But I went through this three years ago, when Natalie stayed with us during the 2012 election and Monty was working half a world away. During that time, she and I argued about Mitt Romney, and you know what it got me? A massive headache and mild digestive trouble.

“Thank you,” Natalie said to me, as if I’d just endorsed her own candidacy in the Iowa caucus. She turned back to her son. “You can’t take a few quotes out of context and let that define the man.”

“And you can’t take a 30 second campaign ad about ‘thinking outside the box’ and decide that he knows what he’s talking about.”

“I’m not! But the caucus is coming up soon, and so far, none of the candidates have impressed me. I might just pick the least offensive one.”

This leads me to what I’m thankful for. Of course there’s a long list: my family, my health, the ability to learn, the opportunity to teach, sunsets, Oreo cookies and lemon zinger tea while watching Scandal, and the fact that in a little over two months, the Iowa caucus will be over.

A lot of people envy Iowa for our unfair advantage in picking presidential candidates. Well, don’t. Even though I teach a class called 20th Century American Politics, I still get tired from all the competing voices. And then there’s the prospect of guilt. What if we choose the wrong guy? The whole country could blame us for setting that bandwagon in motion.

As for me, the democratic side of things seems pretty much sewn up (despite Monty's Bernie Sanders bumper sticker) But the republicans are still up in the air, with a lot of people undecided.

Natalie is one of those people.

Monty remains convinced that he can get her to vote Democrat, but when Natalie was his age she voted for Reagan. He was her first republican, and since then, she’s declared herself an independent.

“Who wants pie?” I asked.

Everyone but Monty and Natalie clambered upstairs, to pick between caramel apple and pumpkin, and by the time we returned to the TV room, their argument was over. Soon it was dark outside, people went home, and we all fell into a food coma.

The next day we did our Black Friday shopping, ate turkey sandwiches for lunch, and found ourselves speechless at the news reports of yet another Colorado shooting, this one at a Planned Parenthood.

“And mom thinks her freedom hasn’t been taken away,” Monty said later, when the kids weren’t in ear shot. “I think we need to redefine what freedom is, since we live in a country where shootings have become the new normal.”

“Yeah,” I said. “But if we can't do that, maybe we just need to rethink what we're thankful for.”