My mom was a liberal hippie and my dad was a Reagan Republican. Here's how they made it work.

They were political archenemies yet their marriage survived for 40+ years. Their approach offers some helpful lessons for these tribal times. Also: The Grammys, cancel culture, Prince William, & more.

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Living with the enemy

My parents were political archenemies. My father was a Reagan-loving, “tough on crime” prosecutor while my mother was a bohemian hippie poet who put an “All You Need Is Love” bumper sticker on the family car. Despite this baking soda and vinegar combination, their marriage survived for 40+ years until death did them part. In our current era of political tribalism, people tend to find this remarkable. When they learn about it, they ask, “How the hell did they make that work?” The short answer: They knew life was about way more than politics.

Different pages
To find a less likely pairing, you’d have to go back to Paula Abdul and that cat in the “Opposites Attract” video. My dad would watch John Wayne movies and read spy novels while my mom conducted dream analysis workshops and sang Sufi chants. He was sober and spent his days prosecuting criminals, she took psychedelics and spent her nights smoking weed. (She was frequently in her “meditation room.” The first time I smoked pot, I remember thinking, “Wow, this smells a lot like my mom’s meditation room.”)

He came to America as a 20 year old and loved the country with a fervent passion. (Immigrants are to patriotism what the born again are to religion; their fervor is an attempt to make up for lost time.) She was born in New York City, immersed herself in the downtown art scene, and embraced its counterculture values.

In retrospect, though, these differences are probably why they gravitated toward each other. He was filled with logic and judgement while she was a feeler oozing with empathy. His grounded nature meant she could orbit. Meanwhile, she pushed him out of his introverted comfort zone in ways he (silently) appreciated.

This yin/yang approach feels like the opposite of how we approach dating now. These days, we’re supposed to keep swiping until we match up with someone who agrees with us on 75 different criteria. The subtext: You should only date someone who will confirm that you’re right about everything. We don’t want our ideas challenged, we want them reinforced. We’ve traded “you complete me” for “you need to be more like me.”

Mock on, Rousseau
A partisan tension constantly simmered in our house, mostly because my father loved talking about politics. He cheered America on in the Cold War, lamented the crime-ridden streets of 80’s Manhattan, mocked Bill Clinton as “Slick Willie,” etc. He was into “owning the libs” years before it was fashionable.

What saved him from being a wholly obnoxious proto-troll is how it was done with a sly grin. You could sense it was an avenue for him to provoke others and spark debates. He’d say something contrarian, rile up the wife and kids, and then bat down arguments like Bruce Lee dispatching a long line of henchmen. If you did manage to argue a valid point in opposition, he seemed to enjoy that most of all.

(Before you jump to conclusions about him, he was also a passionate animal lover who supported environmental causes and, years later, wound up sticking by my mom’s side and serving as her caregiver as she suffered from a debilitating disease. People contain multitudes.)

During these discussions, my mother would constantly push for a more compassionate, liberal approach. However, she lacked the debate chops of my father and didn’t enjoy the conflict the way he did. Occasionally, she’d raise her voice in frustration – but she’d do the same thing when chastising him for all the cardboard boxes piling up in the basement. Mostly, they argued without it feeling like a personal attack; nothing was that serious.

Crucially, how they voted wasn’t their identity. Now, political views often represent the totality of a person. And that sucks because politics is boring. If your personality is based on how you vote (or whom you oppose), you’re most likely a numbing human being to talk to.

My mother also had a secret weapon: eye rolling. It is a surprisingly powerful maneuver. She knew the most effective way to disarm a troll is by ignoring or dismissing him. Often, she’d just flip my father off with her eyes and get on with her day.

I mentioned this to my sister and she recalled an incident from her college years: “Mom and Dad were having a conversation at an Indian restaurant my freshman year. They took my 5 friends to dinner and a debate ensued between them (cannot recall the subject matter) and Mom, in response to his sarcastic response about something she had just opined on, said to Dad, ‘Mock on, mock on, Rousseau.’ My friends were blown away, and ‘mock on, mock on, Rousseau’ became a refrain amongst us for years! For a bunch of 18 year olds taking Pol Sci 100, Mom and her casual dropping of a political philosopher in dinner conversation was a revelation.”

A different time
The landscape was different back then too. My father – an immigrant, a coastal elite, and an intellectual – wouldn’t feel at home in today’s Republican Party. He was a fan of erudite conservatives like George Will, James Baker, and David Gergen. The current crop of Jewish space laser kooks and narcissistic con men would have infuriated him. 

Liberals were different too. Back then, progressives were the ones fighting against censorship. My mother would reject the chiding scolds that dominate leftist politics today the same way she scoffed at Tipper Gore and the PMRC. And the fact that James Joyce, Shakespeare, and Aristotle were ancient white dudes didn’t matter to her; she worshipped them because she loved interesting ideas. If she was still alive, she’d support the toppling of statues but lament attacks on the classics.

Also, the omnipresent Cold War impacted the political landscape since it provided a common enemy: Communism. America’s Red Scare may have left us in a constant panic, but it also united the country. Sure, the other party was bad, but at least they weren’t “the really bad guys.”

Winning the Cold War meant we lost a common foe; and that’s when we began to see our neighbors as the enemy. Perhaps the way out of our current partisan mess is an alien invasion. In his address to the United Nations General Assembly in 1987, Ronald Reagan said, “I occasionally think how quickly our differences worldwide would vanish if we were facing an alien threat from outside of this world.” My dad probably nodded his head and my mom probably thought it was a dumb thing to say.

Oy, division
This was all before technology wreaked havoc on our information streams. My parents got their news from the same sources, a combination of The New York Times, PBS NewsHour, Peter Jennings, and CNN. Their opinions varied, but at least they agreed on the basic facts.

Also, there were no algorithms designed to incite and divide, social media that incentivized hate, or overtly partisan publications feeding confirmation bias. Journalists pretended to be objective and that was helpful. Pretending is a lost art that actually lubricates so much in life. After all, politeness is just a form of pretending.

As a result, there was room to negotiate. It didn’t feel like a constant death battle between opposing tribes. Compromise was still on the table. Tip O’Neil and Reagan would get together in a back room and strike a deal. And if they could do it, so could my parents. 

Breaking bread
Most importantly, they knew each other. These weren’t anonymous strangers; they’d been connected for decades. They didn’t trade barbs in a comment thread; they had conversations around a kitchen table. Even if there was disagreement, there was empathy. She knew he saw all kinds of heinous crimes at his job and how that shaped his worldview. And he respected her lifelong path as a seeker and her love of language. My sister said, “I remember Dad saying that Mom had the most impressive vocabulary of any one he had ever met. He looked up to her in many ways, but especially her intellect.”

Also, they were raising kids together and that mattered more than politics. When my sister got a job working in the Clinton administration, no one was prouder than my dad (even if he continued to call him “Slick Willie”).

They shared other common ground too. Each spent their childhood with an overbearing mother and thus knew when to leave the other one alone. And they both loved Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and Israeli folk music. Dancing and singing can solve a lot of problems.

These arguments usually took place at the kitchen table because one thing they agreed on was that we should eat dinner together every night as a family. Back then, these meals seemed filled with disagreements. Now, I can’t believe we turned off the TV, actually sat together at that table as a family every night, and had lengthy conversations; that feels like a small miracle.

Strict and nurturant
In his book “Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think,” cognitive linguist George Lakoff argues that progressives use a "nurturant parent" model while conservatives follow a "strict father” model. Basically, liberals want their mommy and conservatives want their daddy. Lakoff argues these groups fail to grasp the other side's worldview, leading to a belief the opposition is hopelessly irrational and immoral.

In our home, there may have been a strict dad and nurturant mom who embraced those respective points of view, but there wasn’t a sense the other side was irrational or immoral. There was disagreement without condemnation. And there was a notion that opposing energies can work together – and perhaps even need each other.

Basically, liberals want their mommy and conservatives want their daddy.

Also, time pokes holes in even the most rigid belief systems. For most of his life, my father complained greatly about “wasteful” entitlement programs. But towards the end, when my mom was suffering from a chronic illness that robbed them of their life savings, he heartily embraced the Medicare and Social Security payments that kept them afloat. People are complicated and life changes them. We constantly take a freeze frame and pretend it’s the entire movie. Stick around and the film may go in all kinds of directions you didn’t see coming.

The big myth
Finally, the shifting nature of patriotism is important to their story too. My mom’s family were immigrants who lived out the American dream. She may have had her issues with this country, but she still admired it greatly. Patriotism was bipartisan then; it wasn’t tied up in flag pins and football flyovers. Regardless of your political views, you could feel there was a noble beauty to the American project, take pride in how the rest of the world admired us, and tout the ideals America stood for (even if we didn’t always live up to them). 

These days, we’re constantly shown how much of this was fiction, based on lies handed down from one generation to the next. Fair enough. But even if it was a myth, that myth helped bind us together. Like organized religion, the American dream served a purpose; it gave us a fairy tale the nation could agree on and a belief we were part of something bigger than ourselves. It offered citizens a shared sense of purpose and a notion we’re all in this together.

I understand why many now strive to tear down that myth. But the question is what do we replace it with once it’s toppled? Because if there’s no answer, it’s hazy what, if anything, actually unites the United States. Instead of abandoning the idea of an American dream, I wonder if there’s a way to reboot it and give it a new shape. Maybe that’s naive, but I still think there’s a way to make it work. After all, I saw my parents pull it off.


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Quickies


Politicked off

Dull
I know no one is, like, excited about Joe Biden but...

It's been 6+ months since he's said/done anything wrong.

No missteps, gaffes, 'you ain't black' comments.

Never takes the bait.

No wasting capital on not gonna happen issues.

Just basic, dull competence.

He’s the Honda Civic of politics.

No one got it right
Cuomo did a terrible job with this pandemic.

But Deblasio sucked too.

LA folks say their mayor was awful.

And everyone in Cali hates Gov. Newsom.

Abbot in Texas opened up way too soon.

But Whitmer in Michigan shut down way too much.

Maybe I'm crazy but I'm starting to think we all just love complaining and there's no right way to handle a never-seen-before pandemic.*

* Unless you run an island country that has more sheep than people.


5-spotted

1) “What was the marijuana budget on True Detective?” The “Between Two Ferns” blooper reel is pretty glorious.

2) Fun fact from ”The Best R.E.M. Songs, Ranked”: On “Nightswimming” by REM, Mike Mills is playing the in-house piano at Miami’s Criteria Studios — the same one used for the coda of "Layla."

3) Casting teaches you how to act/audition. Tips from Sarah Cooper:

For my actor friends - it is absolutely wild to now be watching auditions! And from this side of it I can tell you 3 things about your self-tape auditions. 1) don't add your own lines, if you want to you can do that at the end of the scene, but not during, 2) do full takes, do not have edits and cuts within the scene, it makes you look like you couldn't hold onto the character for more than a minute which means it would be hard for you to hold onto it for a 30 minute show, oh and 3) less is more. do less with your face, with your eyes, your head, your hands, you are more likely to be rejected for over-acting than under-acting. Hope this helps, break a leg!

100% agree with the last point, especially for stage performers. Onstage, you often need to go bigger to get a crowd's attention. On camera, it's okay to be subtle; you've already got their attention.

4) How Music Survived The Pandemic. What streaming did to musicians:

Streaming now represents some 80 percent of all revenue for recorded music, and it’s not a great proposition for artists. Spotify, for instance, doesn’t pay on a per-stream basis, but the U.M.A.W. calculated that each stream is worth, on average, about $0.0038. In order to earn the equivalent of a $15-per-hour job, you’d need 657,895 streams of your music per month — for each person in your band.

The first band my partner Naomi Yang and I were in, Galaxie 500, sees about three-quarters of a million monthly streams on Spotify, which earns the three members about $1,000 each. That’s for material we own outright. Typically, the money a band brings in will be shared not just with a label, but with producers, with managers — all the labor it takes to get a recording heard. You might need tens, even hundreds of millions of streams per month to make a living wage, something only the very top of the industry’s pyramid can expect.

5) "It rarely takes more than a page to recognize that you’re in the presence of someone who can write, but it only takes a sentence to know you’re dealing with someone who can’t."
-Josh Olson

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About the Rubesletter: Weekly musings from a standup comedian and startup veteran. If you like my comedy or writing; if you dig tech, politics, art, wellness, & pop culture; if you enjoy smart/nuanced takes & hate BS; if you’d like me to turn you on to other people making cool stuff: Sign up.

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