Din­ner ta­ble de­tente

Baltimore Sun - - FRONT PAGE - By Chris Kal­tenbach

James Fer­gu­son ac­knowl­edges that he’s a lit­tle ner­vous — OK, maybe a lot — about Thanks­giv­ing din­ner this year. Af­ter a heated elec­tion cam­paign that has left fam­ily mem­bers ev­ery­where barely talk­ing to one an­other, so wide is the chasm be­tween op­pos­ing po­lit­i­cal view­points, he’s afraid the din­ner ta­ble conversation could lead to some­thing just short of war.

But he has an an­swer he thinks could keep the peace, and the 27-year-old Fort Wash­ing­ton ac­coun­tant is happy to share it with any­one har­bor­ing sim­i­lar fears.

“I’ve just got to make sure we cook good food,” says Fer­gu­son, a Hil­lary Clin­ton sup­porter pre­par­ing for din­ner with some dozen fam­ily mem­bers, mostly from his dad’s side and not all like-minded po­lit­i­cally. “No­body’s talk­ing if they’re eat­ing good food.”

That may be true, but it’s hard to imag­ine a to­tally silent Thanks­giv­ing din­ner, no mat­ter how de­li­cious the tur­key. And with Amer­ica’s most con­tentious elec­tion in gen­er­a­tions not even three weeks past, fam­i­lies through­out Mary­land are brac­ing for the in­evitable. At some point, it’s likely pol­i­tics will come up in conversation — prob­a­bly when Aunt Mil­dred, no longer able to re­main quiet, turns to Un­cle Fred and asks, in­cred­u­lously, how he could have pos­si­bly voted the way he

voted. And at that point, the fur could very well start fly­ing.

In Mary­land, to judge by the elec­toral map, most of those sit­ting at the din­ner ta­ble will be on the glum side; Clin­ton re­ceived more than 1.6 mil­lion Free State votes, com­pared to just un­der 925,000 for Don­ald Trump.

That could trans­late into a lot of folks be­ing on the de­fen­sive, ready to pounce on any sus­pected slight. At the same time, cel­e­bra­tory Trump sup­port­ers, who may have felt out­num­bered in these parts dur­ing the run-up to the elec­tion, may be un­able to re­sist the urge to crow a lit­tle and en­gage in heated dis­cus­sion.

“I don’t know if heated is the right word, but I think that it will cer­tainly come up at some point,” says Paul Tay­lor, 27, a Trump sup­porter who re­cently ac­cepted a job in ticket sales for a Ken­tucky sports team and is back home in Abing­don for the hol­i­day. “Peo­ple have some def­i­nite opin­ions,” he says. “I’m sure Hil­lary’s emails will come up, and the Clin­ton Foun­da­tion and the pay-to-play. And I’m sure that Trump’s past in­dis­cre­tions will come up.”

But he doubts the dis­cus­sion among the 15 or so fam­ily mem­bers who will be gath­er­ing at his grand­mother’s house in Es­sex will be­come un­ruly, or un­pleas­ant.

“We can get along,” Tay­lor says. One’s pol­i­tics, he ex­plains, “doesn’t change who we are as a fam­ily, or what we do as a fam­ily.”

John­than Speed, 28, is a mar­ket­ing as­so­ciate liv­ing in Bethesda who sup­ported Clin­ton. Most of his rel­a­tives, he says, are “red-state peo­ple.” And he’s not ex­actly look­ing for­ward to hear­ing what they’ll have to say today.

“I’m mostly afraid, not re­ally be­cause of Amer­ica be­ing made great again or any­thing, but a lot of the is­sues be­ing brought up — Black Lives Mat­ter, gay rights and that sort of thing — a lot of my fam­ily, they’re kind of old-school, a lot older than me,” says Speed, who will be split­ting his hol­i­day be­tween gath­er­ings in Wash­ing­ton, Mont­gomery County and Bal­ti­more.

And he’s not buy­ing the keep-them-wellfed de­fense. Po­lit­i­cal dif­fer­ences, he be­lieves, will not re­main dor­mant for long.

“Once peo­ple get enough food in their sys­tem, maybe a cou­ple drinks, that sort of thing just tends to come up,” Speed says.

But the key to main­tain­ing a con­vivial din­ner ta­ble at Thanks­giv­ing this year may rest with imag­in­ing your­self in the other per­son’s shoes, says Michelle Carl­strom, a men­tal health pro­fes­sional and se­nior di­rec­tor of work, life and en­gage­ment at the Johns Hop­kins Univer­sity, where she works with fac­ulty and staff. Don’t be quick to go on the de­fen­sive, don’t rub any­thing in and don’t in­sist on bringing up sub­jects peo­ple would rather avoid, she sug­gests. Erin Lavelle, left, a Repub­li­can, and Chris Lavelle, right, a Demo­crat, of Sykesville are one of many Amer­i­can households with di­vided po­lit­i­cal loy­al­ties.

Keeping one’s mouth shut may be called for. “It is very soon af­ter the elec­tion,” says Carl­strom. “It is very ju­bi­lant for some, and very raw for oth­ers. It just may not be the right time to en­gage in this kind of di­a­logue. If one isn’t feel­ing re­silient enough to kind of be­gin a healthy di­a­logue, then the best thing to do is prob­a­bly stand down and not en­gage.”

Re­mem­ber, she urges, that this is fam­ily you’re sit­ting along­side. Is mak­ing a po­lit­i­cal point re­ally worth strain­ing bonds that have been strong for years, re­gard­less of who has oc­cu­pied the White House?

“I do think Thanks­giv­ing is go­ing to be a time of vent­ing,” Carl­strom says. “Some peo­ple are go­ing to feel vul­ner­a­ble and pow­er­less, and to ex­ac­er­bate that is not go­ing to turn into a great Thanks­giv­ing Day. This is a time that ev­ery­body needs to have the long game in mind.”

In pre­dom­i­nantly Demo­cratic Bal­ti­more, many fam­i­lies an­tic­i­pate lit­tle heated dis­cus­sion at all. “I can’t re­mem­ber ever hav­ing a po­lit­i­cal dis­cus­sion in my fam­ily around Thanks­giv­ing,” says Del. Curt Anderson, 67. “We’re pretty much all of the same per­sua­sion. We’re Democrats. We’re African-Amer­i­cans. We kind of feel the same way about pretty much ev­ery­thing.” Adds City Coun­cil­man Robert Cur­ran, 66: “My fam­ily are diehard Democrats, so I don’t be­lieve that dis­cus­sion will be ... at the din­ner ta­ble as much as a dis­cus­sion of who won the Loy­ola and Calvert Hall [foot­ball] game.”

But out­side the city, where things are not quite as ho­mo­ge­neous, some nerves are al­ready raw. Erin Lavelle, a 38-year-old mother of two boys liv­ing in Sykesville, is a proud Trump sup­porter. Her hus­band, Chris, a 38-year-old physi­cist at the Johns Hop­kins Univer­sity Ap­plied Physics Lab­o­ra­tory, voted for Clin­ton. The two ar­gued pol­i­tics of­ten be­fore the elec­tion, and re­main res­o­lutely di­vided.

Their so­lu­tion? They do their best not to talk about it any­more. “We got into some pretty se­ri­ous heated ar­gu­ments,” Erin Lavelle says. “I drew the line and said, ‘You and I can’t talk about this, be­cause ev­ery time we do, it gets nasty.’ ”

Agrees Chris Lavelle, “I think we’re both di­al­ing it down.”

Which makes it just as well, the Lavelles agree, that they’ll be hav­ing Thanks­giv­ing din­ner by them­selves this year — they both hail from Min­nesota, and gen­er­ally don’t make it back there un­til Christ­mas­time. Her fa­ther is Repub­li­can, Erin Lavelle says, while her mom “has al­ways been a silent Demo­crat.” Some fam­ily mem­bers lean blue, while oth­ers are res­o­lutely red. The fis­sures are not eas­ily bridged. “This is a po­lar­iz­ing topic,” she says, “and if I got my two brothers and my mom and my dad and the whole fam­ily and their kids and ev­ery­thing around the ta­ble, it could be a blood­bath.”

Then again, it might not be. Ci­vil­ity is al­ways an op­tion, es­pe­cially when fam­ily mem­bers are in­volved. Kath­leen Met­tle, a 28-year-old en­vi­ron­men­tal ac­tivist liv­ing in Howard County, has al­ready cel­e­brated her Thanks­giv­ing, back on Nov. 13. Seven­teen fam­ily mem­bers of var­i­ous po­lit­i­cal per­sua­sions gath­ered around the din­ner ta­ble at her grand­mother’s house.

Won­der of won­ders, ev­ery­thing turned out fine.

“My at­ti­tude was, ‘I’m go­ing to go, I’m go­ing to make the best of it, and if things get

Thanks­giv­ing sur­vival guide

A six-point post-elec­tion in­struc­tion set from Michelle Carl­strom, a men­tal health pro­fes­sional and se­nior di­rec­tor of work, life and en­gage­ment at the Johns Hop­kins Univer­sity:

Re­mem­ber, it’s early. Re­ac­tions are still fresh and emo­tional. The post-elec­tion conversation re­ally isn’t about pol­i­tics; it’s about cel­e­brat­ing the out­come or reel­ing from shock. Rec­og­nize you are in an emo­tional conversation, not a po­lit­i­cal conversation.

Lis­ten. Ev­ery­body wants to talk, so let them. Lis­ten­ing doesn’t mean you agree, but if you dis­agree and jump into the conversation, be pre­pared for it to es­ca­late — and do you re­ally want to go there?

Look for com­mon ground. We live in a cul­ture of “dis­agree and de­stroy,” but these are your friends and fam­ily, not your en­e­mies. You can pre­serve re­la­tion­ships by look­ing for places to agree — even if those agree­ments have to shift the conversation to­ward foot­ball or the weather.

Take care of your­self. If it’s too much, have a plan B — get up, get a drink, use the bath­room, take a sur­prise call from an old friend, get a breath of fresh air.

Play the long game. Four years will pass and ad­min­is­tra­tions change, but fam­i­lies live on. Hurt­ful and of­fen­sive words at the din­ner ta­ble are not eas­ily for­got­ten. Us­ing kind words does not mean walk­ing back on your val­ues; it means be­ing kind in your com­mu­ni­ca­tions and blend­ing strength with kind­ness. This is prob­a­bly not the mo­ment to dig in and fight.

Re­mem­ber the pur­pose of the day. What are you thank­ful for? It’s usu­ally the peo­ple in our lives, like our fam­ily and friends. Prac­tice tol­er­ance and kind­ness and make mem­o­ries. bad, I’ll leave,’ ” she says. “But it ac­tu­ally went re­ally well. That was the most pleas­antly sur­pris­ing, hu­man­ity-em­brac­ing, life-af­firm­ing thing that could have hap­pened. It wasn’t like we all sang ‘Kum­baya,’ but when [pol­i­tics] did come up, peo­ple were re­ally civil.”

Still, she ad­mits, “for the most part, we avoided it.”


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