Originally published: September 1, 2008
I love my neighbors. You couldn’t imagine better ones. They have great kids, a sweet little dog, and a yard that, while well-tended is not so coiffed that it makes our own look unkempt. They are thoughtful, honest people, ready to lend a hand if we should need it. When we chat about child-rearing, education today, our jobs, or our household projects, we’re on the same page. We know many of each other’s sorrows and joys, and although we don’t exactly party together, there is an air of mutual respect that flows back and forth across our common, well-maintained fence. Compassionate and community-minded, they are Good People.
But every four years, there comes a time when I feel I live next door to strangers, when the mere profile of their house seems harsh and unfamiliar and the very roofline frowns unyieldingly. It happens when I remember they’ll once again vote Republican.
This manages to shock me every time, like a glass of ice water down the back of the neck. How can we agree on so much when our votes agree on so little? For a while this time ‘round, I tried to reconcile my mind – perhaps they are voting not for the self-promoting, condescending, rights-revoking John McCain, but rather the John McCain of The Daily Show, the smart, funny, reasonable McCain with whom Jon Stewart used to banter so enjoyably. But then McCain cast the appalling Sarah Palin in the role of understudy, and still our neighbors remained unwavering. That ended my unilateral concession. Again, as four years ago, and four years before that, they’ll vote to support so much of what I believe is wrong in this country. All I can think of, now that it’s again time to cast our ballots, is how can you - when I like you so much? I must assume – the doctrines of each side being inflexible – that they wonder the same about us. And so the comfortable familiarity that exists between us is swiftly graffitied- over, tagged in red and blue, color-coded to define the differences in our hopes, priorities and beliefs. In non-election years these creeds are able to stay buried in the kind of don’t ask, don’t tell discretion of neighbors who do not discuss politics. When an election is brewing, they surface, like oxygen-starved Orcas.
And I suddenly I find myself annoyed by little things that I normally wouldn’t take notice of: the stodgy placement of their lawn ornaments, the yapping of their dog, their incorrectly sorted recycling. I glare at the long-dead branch of their oak tree whose bleached fingers mar the view from my living room. I close my windows to the vented smell of their dryer sheets. And I begin to hate the torturous whine of the gas-powered blower that, it now seems to me, they run every time we plan to eat outside, or settle down for a quiet read of a book their own candidate for VP would surely consider elitist and profane. These thoughts do not normally occur to me. What is normal is for me to look warmly at their house as our two families duck back and forth into each others yards at a moments notice. Now, as happens every four years, a partisan magnifying glass is scorching a line of demarcation between us, threatening to set our shared fence ablaze.
In actuality I have no idea whether this quadrennial estrangement is two sided or not, since we so adeptly avoid talking politics – but for my part, I have a hard time putting it out of my mind. Their smiles and waves still seem genuine, while mine feel hollow as an old cardboard tube. I rant at the newspaper, the radio, the TV with each new outrage perpetrated by the Republican candidates, and assume our neighbors are doing a mirror image routine in their own home, hammering their fists at the Democrats, calling us baby killers and elitists and Muslims and whatever else it is that we are rumored to be.
My husband, weary of my baffled sputtering as I gesture towards our neighbor’s house, suggested that I talk with them, ask them simply and calmly why they are voting Republican so that I can understand their position and stop guessing as to their reasoning. He argues that the truth of why they vote as they do can’t possibly be worse than my fears. But I am afraid that he might be wrong. I am afraid that my neighbors will tell me about opinions and beliefs that I won’t be able to erase from my mind even when the election is over. I am afraid I will learn, perhaps, that they listen to and believe Bill O’Reilly and Ann Coulter and their ilk. That would most certainly fall under the heading of things I wouldn’t ever want to know. What if they revealed that they support the teaching of creationism in public schools? What if they believe that George W. Bush was a good president? Feeling this way is bad enough for a few months every four years; I am not anxious to extend it any longer than necessary. For now I still wave, and chat when we meet – about our kids, about our jobs. Neither house has political signs up. I think of it as an unspoken agreement. They don’t even have bumper stickers. Me, I have bumper stickers. Two on each car.
The people on the other side of these neighbors, however, just today put up a McCain/Palin yard sign, Some canvassers for Obama came by my house the other day and asked, almost accusingly, what was up with the house on the corner, and that sign blaring out into the boulevard. I felt guilty, like I wasn’t holding up my part of the bargain here in this Battleground State. My signs were in the mail, I told them, which is true. The gloves are off, I guess.
We are entrenched here in our small street of four houses, where we always play out a miniaturized version of the Big Race. The house on the other side of us, also full of Good People, contains Democrats, so we’re two and two. Because my husband is not a U.S. citizen, we Democrats have been traditionally outnumbered, the adult voter tally three to four. Our neighbor’s oldest son can now vote – which may add to their tally. But the Democratic neighbors have three marvelous daughters who have been steadily coming of age over the last few years, so now it’s 6 – 5, or perhaps 7 – 4, if the oldest son ends up voting democratic. I rejoice quietly. Ha.
I am looking forward to the end of this election, finding myself exhausted by bouts of outrage, by hope, by the episodic plunges into near-despair. If we win, I suspect my feelings toward my neighbors will be quickly repaired, and I’ll stop dwelling on the differences between us, and think rather on when we might have them over for a drink – the following week maybe. I’ll be feeling magnanimous by then, proffering my hand across the mulchéd aisle between our yards.
And if we lose? This time, it would be a thousand times worse. A million times. It’s one thing to avoid discussing politics with people you like. It’s another to try to forget politics when you find yourself holding those same people eternally responsible as the ground crumbles away, and the world tilts into madness. It would be sad to find that we could no longer wrestle the blame back into the shed to sleep for four more years. Something would be lost.
So I hope we win – more than ever before. Obama and Biden have restored my hope in many things, including the wish that I can continue to appreciate and love my Good Neighbors, even if I have to hate them for a few months while doing it.