Halfway to Ninety

On October 22 this year, my grandma Pat would have been ninety years old, had she lived that long. She died in 1983, and I’ve often wondered what she might have done with all those extra years. She was just starting to explore her photography hobby. Her grandkids were about to become teenagers and would soon need less of her attention. She had never really traveled outside the Northwest. I wanted to write about her then (and I still do), but I find I have a lot of other things on my mind this election season.

Today I reach the halfway point, should I be so lucky as to live to ninety years old. I hope I do. I’d like another 45 years to experience this strange and wonderful universe, with all of its surprise twists. The first 45 have certainly not been exactly what I expected.

The North Idaho where I grew up was a complicated place. The industries that had sustained the region since the late 1890s (mining and logging) were beginning to lose momentum and unemployment among young white men like my dad was high. He must have spent about half of the 70s on unemployment, with scattered temporary employment doing dirty, dangerous mill work like “pulling green chain.” (I’m pretty sure everyone in my family of that generation has spent at least one summer doing something like that).

Meanwhile, there was a fairly active post-hippie progressive movement. Was it a movement? Maybe not. But the people my mom hung around with and met at the health food store where she worked spoke against racism and sexism (typically while getting stoned), and wanted to protect the environment. In public schools, we delved deep into the history and plight of native Americans, particularly those from and living in our region. In fourth grade I memorized not the Gettysburg address, but Chief Joseph’s surrender speech. When I was nine and a member of Reagan’s cabinet visited Coeur d’Alene I stood in a crowd outside the resort chanting, “Reagan, Reagan he’s no good! Send him back to Hollywood!”

Reagan’s victory in 1980 kind of felt like the end of the world. He did not represent any of the utopian values I held sacred as a 9-year-old. I knew climate change was happening, people caused it, and we had to fix it right away. I knew that not only from watching a lot of nature documentaries, but they TAUGHT US IN PUBLIC SCHOOL (right along with evolution in 8th grade science). The nuclear threat with the U.S.S.R. was a real thing, and potentially a much more catastrophic thing than any of the various nightmare scenarios we face today. The economy was shitty, and while trickle-down sounds good those of us who grew up poor/ working class know that making rich people richer has never helped the working poor. All of the progress made by feminists and social justice activists in the 60s and 70s seemed poised to go down the drain.

Even with the progressive vibe burbling in Coeur d’Alene, there was that creepy complex just a few miles North: The Aryan Nation headquarters. I’m not sure when they settled there, but I don’t remember a time as a kid when there wasn’t that scary villain lurking in the shadows. Nazis. What kind of person would want to bring back Nazis? They were mostly an abstract concept back then. No parades or marches, just a sinister presence. A Catholic priest had his house firebombed for speaking against them, but other than that I don’t recall any violence. White kids with buzz cuts and quasi-military attire were a signal to stay away.

Things are still complicated in North Idaho, but much different. A couple of years ago a friend was substitute teaching at a public middle school and asked for a show of hands: How many believe evolution is real? One brave hand. What happened to that progressive vibe? Oh there are still liberals in Coeur d’Alene (I probably know most of them). In the early 2000s, shortly before the Aryan Nation was forced out by a lawsuit (their guards had beaten up a Native American woman and her son, and they sued for enough to shut down the operation), I happened to be in Coeur d’Alene during a Human Rights parade. I spotted my mom’s ex and walked along with him. A few hundred people, probably, protesting the Nazi parade the weekend before.

I left my hometown as soon as I could–8 days after high school graduation, and along with many of my progressive gen-x cohort moved to a city and became an information worker. I will never spend a summer pulling green chain. If I had stayed in North Idaho I would have had much different opportunities (or lack thereof). I have two (male) cousins gainfully employed in North Idaho. One sells real estate and the other builds docks for rich people. These opportunities exist in North Idaho because it has something the midwest doesn’t: it is beautiful. People don’t want to retire to Ohio.

The people moving to Coeur d’Alene fall into roughly tow categories: white retirees and white families from southern California who are tired of dealing with “race issues.” You might argue that living among only white (“not racist”) racists is a “race issue” in itself. And you’d be right. One of the reasons Trump won on racist rhetoric is that people living in pockets of whiteness (usually swimming in generations of racism, whether explicit or not) have a very hard time grasping the humanity of people not like them. You have to learn that shit. That means learning from parents or teachers or self-educating.

I learned it from the pot smoking hippies who sat around my mom’s living room listening to Cat Stevens and imagining world peace and equality. I learned from the women who ran the gifted children’s program and taught me critical thinking in the third grade. I learned it from watching Star Trek with my grandpa every Saturday. But mostly I learned it from reading. Okay, so Tolkein is not the most progressive syllabus for a fourteen-year-old, but my love of reading allowed me to get inside other people’s heads and share their experience. Being able to imagine another’s experience is how we build empathy. What I see in our country right now is a massive empathy gap.

I grew up with (and still enjoy) incredible privilege. I lived in a town surrounded by racists and neo-Nazis and they were never a threat to me. I can visit anytime without worrying about becoming a target of hate crime. The Aryan Nation may have moved out but you still see the buzz cuts and white power tattoos. How do we bridge gaps and heal wounds? One way, maybe is kids who start to question the dogmas of their elders.

I really hope that there are kids out there who will sit down for Thanksgiving dinner with their Trump-supporting (or Hillary or Bernie) families and not accept these adults’ opinions as fact. Young people can change the tide in some of the forgotten parts of the country. Maybe they can’t change the economy (though maybe they can by selling artisanal handicrafts?! kidding sort of), but they can change minds, starting with their own.