Self-help Manual for a Nation

True to its title, Julie Ethan’s book, How Can Half the Country Be So Stupid? A Memoir and Guide to Friendship Between Political Opposites reads like a conversation between friends. Her guiding principle is “Relationships over politics,” so if you’re worried that the book is an attempt to change your political team, rest easy. As Julie points out, “Researchers have proven that facts don’t change our minds, that we won’t let go of our beliefs even when presented with contrary evidence.”

What you will hear in this 33-page, 10-chapter offering is Julie’s compassionate, humane voice. I’ve no doubt that if you went for coffee together, she’d ask about you, listen intently and make you feel at home knowing that conversational skill is, above all, a gesture of hospitality. The foundation of  conversation requires listening and this is how we find common ground.

Julie’s conflict resolution credentials and life experiences as a mother and business owner are beautifully woven together in this book written in, of course, a conversational style. Part memoir, part self-help, part how-to guide, she offers her story and journey to show the reader how her ideas evolved. She takes the reader from motherhood in “Shenanigans and Lego Bricks” (best line: “We didn’t know much about Wall Street, but we knew the call of a loon, the smoky haze of a campfire, and the glow of a perfect sunset.”) to the final chapter, “Using Your Brain to Overcome the Urge to Murder Your Political Opposite”. The last chapter is not just about regulating your blood pressure and keeping yourself out of jail, it rallies all the previous ideas and suggestions in the book into concrete actions we can use to cool political discussions and maintain friendships.

The chapter, “A Blueprint for Bridges”, shows Julie using everything she has learned to bring people on opposing political sides together, to listen to each other, and to hear each other without being hostile. Even more than the chapter which recounts her family business economic crash between 2008 and 2010, this is a harrowing account of the canyon that separates people in America’s two-party camps and the pain felt in both groups. But Julie doesn’t wallow. Instead, she gives readers a tool to help identify the so-called “villains” in news media and campaign advertising. She shows the reader how to cultivate compassion by asking questions and how to listen.

The book’s goal is to build common links between all people and thereby restore some civility to political conversations and civic life. Given the chasm that seems to widen every day in the USA, the goal seems impossible, but Julie makes it look doable. As a Canadian and an outside observer let me assure you that Canada has its own polarized issues – our fraught and toxic relationship with First Nations’ peoples, for example – and her book is equally a guide for snowshoeing the blizzard of our national politics.

So, if facts don’t change our minds or help us see another point of view how do we find common ground? Julie proposes looking “… for underlying values you might share in the situation”, values like community, family and jobs.

I know this book will help me keep calm when having political conversations with those I may not agree with. I will take Julie’s advice and ask open ended questions, try to listen, AND hear the answers without launching into hyperbolic orbit. It may even help my blood pressure when watching or reading the news.

I urge you to give Julie’s book a shot. It might defuse discussions with friends and family AND infuse you with optimism about the future.

To learn more about Julie Ethan, visit her website.

For a sample of Julie’s writing, visit her blog.

What Can I Say?

Menage

I’ve struggled trying to think of something to talk about here, with you. Maybe you haven’t noticed my silent self sitting in your living room at the end of your sofa with a pillow tucked behind my achy back listening to your stories. You’re always so fascinating. I start to open my mouth and then clamp it shut suddenly shy and reluctant to share. Even a full-bodied glass of red wine can’t coax me to speak. Continue reading

Coffee Ghost

white ceramic mug with coffee on brown wooden table

Photo credit: Annie Spratt via Upsplash

I dump the compacted coffee grounds from the basket of the stove top espresso maker into the compost and sweep my index finger in the metal basket to free the remaining grains. The day old coffee puck smells like an ashtray, and reminds me of my mother.

*

I used to lie in bed listening to the coffee percolator burble. I sniffed for the first whiff of coffee and singed tobacco tinged with freshly lit sulfur from a spent match. The signals. To be sure the moment was really right – that I could squeeze between an inhale, an exhale and a sip, when she would be happiest – I sang “Mary Had a Little Lamb” twice. And then I bubbled into the kitchen.  With an elbow propped on the counter, hand raised, mother gently held her cigarette. Beside her were an empty ashtray and a full cup of fresh coffee.

“I’ll make your cinnamon toast and vanilla milk in a minute. Just let me finish this first,” she said.

*

I press freshly ground beans into the espresso basket and set the Bialetti on the stove. Steam hisses from it as the water boils and rushes through the basket into the top compartment. At the kitchen table, I wait and look out at the chickadees gathering at the feeder. I wait for the day to pour open, liquid with possibility, for daylight, like cream swirling into coffee, to lighten the dark morning hours. I drink the quiet seconds before my children thunder into the kitchen.

*

Mid-afternoon my mother stopped time. In the living room, she gazed through the window to the harbour, waiting for Dad to come up the road from the fish plant where he worked. She waited with a full ashtray and a half cup of lukewarm coffee. I nestled into her, placing my fingertip into the pink cave of her longest fingernail – a small place I could hide and insert myself into her quiet time.

person holding cigarette near window

Photo credit: Bart Scholliers – Upsplash

 

Life is a Beach

“When can we go to the beach? When, Mom?”

We’d just moved to Vancouver Island from our former home in rainy Prince Rupert on the northern coast of British Columbia, Canada. There were no beaches in Prince Rupert, just the docks at Royal Fisheries where my Dad worked. Commercial fishermen berthed and off-loaded their catches at the docks and this was where my friends and I jumped into the frigid fish-gutted water. The temperature was always blue-lip cold. Continue reading