In 2002, three days before Christmas, I got a speeding ticket. I was driving east on highway 50 in Sacramento, just past the Bradshaw exit, with a car full of my friends. We were on our way to look at Christmas lights, our hearts filled with the joy of being together, our conversations bubbling over with the excitement of being reunited after our first semester at college.
I’d just turned 19.
I had a reputation (and habit) of driving fast. I spent my adolescence bravely avoiding any semblance of rebellion in hopes of extending the life expectancy of both my parents, whose lives had been undoubtedly made shorter by my older brother’s tumultuous teenage years. But behind the wheel, I let the desire for freedom and irresponsibility seep through my thick wall of perfectionism, making my right foot heavy on the gas pedal.
That night though, I distinctly remember a casual and moderate cruise through the brisk Northern California darkness, maybe 4 to 5 miles per hour above the posted limit. I was too engrossed with my friends to engage in my ordinary ritual of breaking the rules of the road.
As soon as the CHP pulled me over, I felt unfairly victimized by his likely desire to stack up a few more citations before the new year and the relative emptiness of the pre-holiday highway. I protested immediately, urging him to admit to his error. I listened patiently and intently as he responded with confidence and authority, then hurriedly wrote out the ticket for “85+.”
A couple weeks later, I met the officer again. In court. He sat in a chair on what resembled a TV movie “witness stand” as the judge asked him questions about the “night in question.” I plead my own case, reminding the officer that he’d claimed he tracked me with his “odometer” despite pulling me over within seconds of us encountering each other on the freeway. The CHP, visibly annoyed by my efforts, couldn’t mount a rebuttal to my argument and the judge reduced my fine to the minimum. It was an incomplete victory, but an important one. I felt proud. and vindicated. And like years of standing up for myself and speaking my truth and doing the things girls my age rarely learn to do had finally made a meaningful, financial impact.
To this day, my best friend (who was both in the car and at the hearing) tells this story to help people understand my personality, disposition and determination, and/or, if she needs them to know (as she puts it) not to fuck with me.
I share this story as a back drop for the one I’m about to tell. To paint a picture of the type of confidence and personal will I’m operating with. To help you understand that I’m not exactly the type of woman who accepts things – information, arguments, ideas – at face value. I am relentlessly skeptical and almost unwavering in my willingness to stand up and say what I think. It is both a superpower and a liability. I embrace it as both.
Nearly a decade after my first court appearance, I went to law school.
During my third year – mostly spent learning how to cook, going to the beach and occasionally getting too drunk – I made friends with a Republican. He was handsome, tall, blonde and white. He was (is?) incredibly charming and hilarious, not to mention the type of brilliant that is both understated and effortless, intoxicating and infuriating, attractive and repugnant.
We had an instant, if unlikely, bond. We had a brief romantic relationship but mostly engaged in a deep and meaningful friendship. I loved and trusted him so much so that I spent a month traveling in Southeast Asia with him, after refusing to fly anywhere or leave the country since I was a kid.
I don’t even remember why we were talking about it, or anything else about the conversation but there was a time when he plainly asserted to me that “roads are better in red states.”
And I believed him.
He’d grown up in Colorado, which is now reliably liberal but back then was still clinging to its wild west conservative cowboy values. He went to college in Virginia, an experience I came to regard as shaping his white, conservative, male, identity in the way that my west coast public education shaped my intersectional feminist self.
For years I carried this “fact” around with me. I remember driving home (fast) to Sacramento, rolling my eyes with disappointment every time I hit a bump or dipped into a pothole. The night before Halloween in 2014, I got a flat tire driving to a friend’s house when my car struck a pile of loose debris in the middle of the road. Stranded on the side of the freeway, in the dark, I remember wondering whether I should risk my reproductive rights by moving to Arizona for the year-round sunshine and promise of smooth roads and the related assurance that I’d never be in this position again.
Two years after that, I moved to Michigan, a state where the Republican governor knowingly, and unapologetically, poisoned an entire city, disrupting and ruining the lives of thousands of his constituents. I lived in the state for 8 months. I made coffee every morning with bottled water. I put countless pounds of plastic waste into our oceans and waterways between January and August, unwilling to surrender my trust to the corrupt state government.
In late Spring, I was scrambling to an outdoor soccer game, cutting in and out of traffic on the extra-wide suburban Detroit streets when my Ford Focus veered partially onto the sidewalk, jolted sideways by a collision with a gaping fissure in the road. It was sudden and startling enough to elevate my heart-rate and bring my attention back to the moment. As I collected myself and steadied my vehicle, I thought back to that now 4 year old conversation and how “the roads are better in red states.”
I’d been driving on terrible roads in a red state for months.
I think a lot of us form views, opinions and beliefs in much the same way I came to accept my friend’s assertion about the quality of infrastructure in conservative led municipalities (my words, not his). 1. Someone we trust, admire, respect or love shares something with confidence, especially on a subject we know little about or haven’t yet formed an opinion. 2. The explanation or belief seems plausible and rational 3. We accept it, and 4. When we encounter this issue in our lives we look for evidence to affirm it.
The problem is, most folks (including me!) are speaking from our myriad experiences, biases and cultural contexts. We aren’t expressing truth or facts. We’re almost always sharing an opinion, in many cases, an underdeveloped or uninformed one. In the worst cases, these formulations are racist, biased or bigoted ones. This is especially true of the folks who have the most access and ability to assert their voice and values – disproportionately wealthy, white, men (like my friend!). To make matters worse, most of us live in segregated communities, were educated in segregated schools, and are now further polarized and isolated by social media platforms designed to reproduce, concentrate and insulate opinions and ideas that are most like our own. I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had with voters (especially women) whose political values and beliefs are admittedly a product of the family they grew up in or the person they’re married to. In an even greater percentage of conversations, I encounter folks who don’t think they have political values or beliefs at all.
If I had it to do over again, my conversation with my friend might have gone something like this.
“Why do you say that?”
“Where did you learn that?”
“How did you come to that belief?”
“That sounds like a generalization, what information do you have to back that up?”
We could have engaged in a dialogue that would have helped me have a starting point to further investigate. Maybe I would have challenged him to provide evidence, or helped him give a more nuanced explanation. Maybe I would have held myself accountable to follow-up and find out more, so I’d be better prepared next time I encountered this position. It’s likely that the both of us would be better, more engaged, more thoughtful speakers and citizens as a result.
I know for me, I’m most vulnerable to accepting questionable information when I’m in a relationship or situation where harmony and compliance are more comfortable than challenge, dissonance and discord. I’ve experienced this in my family, at work, in school, and maybe, most memorably, in relationships with men who pretend they like how smart and assertive I am, but really prefer I be less abrasive, and more agreeable.
I think the trick is to cultivate relationships of honesty, trust and mutual respect, and to carve out safe spaces to explore complex topics, ask questions of each other and engage in discussion, even disagreement, with courage and love. I don’t want to downplay how difficult it is to act this way in real life. It is a challenge I’ve taken on, imperfectly and inconsistently, but with ongoing commitment and dedication. I liken it to other practices and disciplines that can be painful and messy, but are worth it, especially for their long-term, sustainable benefits. As I used to tell my new power yoga students, “it never gets easier but it does get more fun.”
Back in 2012, I had the type of friendship that certainly would have endured even a heated disagreement about local governance. The friendships, the relationships, worth having are that way too. And we are all likely to be better informed, more compassionate, more engaged voters and neighbors and parents and leaders for having them.
Life is easier, but not always better, driving (fast) on smooth, flat roads.