Talking to Grandma: Something that’s not quite a rant

For this to be a rant, I’d have to be angry, impassioned, red in the face, but instead, I’m just exhausted, emotionally and physically. Every week, I visit the local YMCA’s pool with my grandma for an hour or so of water aerobics, just about the only exercise I can handle as a Dysautonomic with soft tissue and joint problems. This has become our new routine as I’ve finished with more than a year of physical therapy and psychology, and am now on a maintenance plan of regularly scheduled medications and close monitoring of my heart health. Grandma knows quite a bit about my condition, and saw all the other pediatric patients in the same waiting room we sat in for all those weeks. Paraplegics, low-functioners, blind kids who developed other sensory disorders, kids recovering from major conditions that developed secondary conditions, really humbling stuff, so the only explanation I have for her behavior is that she simply doesn’t absorb reality that is presented to her.

Today was just another day in a long line of afternoons spent wondering how she became who she did, considering her parents’ background. She was born in 1944 in New York City to a Puerto Rican and a Finnish immigrant who had never known luxury or life outside of the lower working class. Today, she’s a upper-middle class conservative who annually vacations in Cozumel, New York, and Europe (oh, and Hawaii this year,) drives a recent model Acura sedan, and enjoys Fox News. By all accounts, she is living proof of the American Dream.

The years of white privilege must have gone to her head, and no matter how many times she says surprising things, I was still stunned to hear the words, “Hillary is a criminal” fall out of her mouth today. She made some remark about how criminal behavior never goes unpunished “in America,” to which I replied that “Trump was elected, he was put in office by voters who-” and was cut off by her interjection that I shouldn’t generalize who voted for Trump. And she’s right, I shouldn’t, because her husband voted for him: a long-time follower of the intricate life of the global economy, stock market investor, and former [publishing house] bookkeeper. Grandma herself didn’t vote, or she just hasn’t admitted it. Maybe she doesn’t want any claim to the responsibility of putting Trump in office. She doesn’t seem to be his biggest fan, generally, yet she allies herself with this administration and republican-ruled Congress, and their stances on several issues.

I replied, “Why [shouldn’t I generalize]? Because Grandpa voted for him?”

“Yes,” she said, “Because he was scared of Hillary.” She said it seriously, matter-of-factly, loudly.

“He was scared of electing a long-time public servant with extensive history in stressful office?”

“It’s because she’s a criminal!”

“What?” I couldn’t hide my shock and concern. “You believe that? She’s never been convicted, let alone tried, of anything!”

“They’re just covering it up,” she shook her head. “They know and they’re just hiding it.”

I almost snorted, “You really believe that conspiracy theory?”

She looked at me with that terrified, surprised, look, “It’s not a conspiracy!”

I had to take a solid few moments to breathe and look away from her, during which she said some more things that only sounded like muffled trumpet tuning to me in my shock-daze. I got a short break in the time it took us to walk to the check-in counter of the gym, change into our suits, and start our workout. The conversation picked up again with something along the lines of her admitting that even though she considered the whole “thing” to be nonsense, she thought I was very well spoken during my radio interview about climate activism last night.

It hurt. It hit me right in the heart and made me want to turn around and cry right there in the hot water pool of that Family YMCA Aquatics Center. She doesn’t support me, my work, or anything I’ve ever worked for, and for a brief moment, a thought I hate crossed my mind. “That’s fine, she and her beliefs will die.” I don’t want to have these feelings about my grandma, or anyone for that matter. I don’t want to feel this hatred, anger, frustration, disappointment, fatigue, sickness. But goddamnit, I am ALLOWED to.

So I told her about Texas’s renewable energy programs, only I used the word “sustainable,” which made her laugh. Texas is currently the leading state producer of clean energy, and we haven’t even approached our production capacity. There is still a lot of unutilized space and labor currently going to the fossil fuel industry, which Texas is so dependent on. But I made sure to say that going solar and using wind power isn’t enough, and person-by-person efforts aren’t enough anymore. She shook her head and said, “What are you willing to give up for your cause?” As if she thought that would somehow stump me. There I was in a public pool, in a Goodwill swimsuit, with my reusable water jug, bath towel as old as me, sustainably sourced fabric totebag holding my travel case of reusable utensils and straw I take everywhere to avoid single-use plastics, staring her in the face, wondering what she could possibly be expecting me to say. I must have paused for a moment too long, because she continued, “Cars?” It threw me off, considering how much I talk about trains and transit around her (#NUMTOT) especially since the nature of my disability prevents me from ever being a license holder. I nodded, “Yeah, and palm oil products.” She just rolled her eyes. I continued, “But every issue is intersectional, especially climate change. You can’t talk about climate change without talking about poverty, sexism, even immigration.”

“What? How is immigration relevant?”

“Well, the developed world mostly exists in the most temperate climate zones. As climate change increasingly causes temperature and weather event extremes, more and more people are moving to those temperate zones to escape drought, flooding, hurricanes, blizzards, and animal food source extinction related to these.”

She didn’t seem willing to accept that. “People aren’t moving to developed countries to get away from bad weather.”

“No,” I said, “Not that alone. There are a lot of pull factors to the US and Western Europe, but climate change shouldn’t be ignored as one of them.”

And then she said something that really made me tilt my head in confusion. “You have no idea how lucky you are to have been born in this country.”

UH, YEAH I DO. When I think about the kids who are experiencing disability, particularly my disability, in undeveloped nations and less-accessible places of the world, I shudder at the thought of going without the supports I have in my life, but I am also aware of the need for supports that are still missing. And I said all of this to her, but her response was simply to reduce it down and reply that I’m somehow not like other disabled people. What the actual Hell is that supposed to mean?

Sometimes I wonder if she says the things she does just to get a rise out of me, like a schoolyard bully who gets off on knowing they upset their victim. She’ll say random, inflammatory things, and shift the conversation. This time, it was to say that Bernie Sanders has been “revealed” as a millionaire. Yeah, from book sales. Good for him. “And if he’s a man of his word,” I said, “he’ll end up putting it to work, not hoarding it.”

She seemed to take personal offense. “What do you have against wealthy people?”

Oh, Grandma, so much. “I don’t believe billionaires should exist as long as poverty, hunger, and homelessness exist.”

“But billionaires have to exist to millionaires can exist, and the middle and lower class.”

Now we don’t have time to unpack ALL of that… but what I said is, “You could never spend a billion dollars in your life time. There is no need for such obscene wealth.”

She decided to try to give me some examples of benevolent billionaires. “Just look at Bill and Melinda Gates, and their foundation.”

“Yeah, and after all of that, they’re still obscenely wealthy. Jeff Bezos just had his wealth split in half and he’s still the wealthiest person on the face of the earth, while his employees live in poverty.”

She scoffed, “That’s false.”

Except, it’s not, only I can’t hyperlink things I say out loud. “It’s not false, there are people working in the Amazon warehouses living in their cars while Jeff Bezos could eradicate nationwide homelessness a few times over without breaking a sweat.”

“And what do you propose we do about that [homelessness]?” The condescension in her tone made me want to scream.

“It wouldn’t be too hard to establish tax brackets that take advantage of the 500 or so billionaires in this country alone and make major societal improvements.”

What she said next cut right through me. “There’s just no reasoning with you.”

I stared at her in disbelief.

“Socialism and communism do not work. No one will ever be in favor of fixing other people’s problems. It works best when everyone works for themselves.”

She really just looked at her disabled granddaughter, having witnessed the existences of many, many other disabled people, and said that everyone must work for themselves. It was all I could do not to walk out and home immediately. The one thing stopping me was my aforementioned struggling heart not surviving the eight mile uphill trek.

“Yknow, in China…” she began, but I couldn’t hear her over the obnoxiously loud, anxiety-induced ringing in my ears. Based on her expressions, I’m betting it was some kind of Wall Street Journal article she read about rural Chinese poverty. Whatever it was, it ended with, “There are no successful socialist countries in the world.”

I tried to explain the difference between socialism and communism to her, but I know it fell on deaf ears that turned themselves off, rather than being bombarded with sensory overload sounds. I even used a visual metaphor of people of different heights trying to see over a fence to watch a baseball game needing different numbers of boxes to stand on. It wasn’t effective. “There is no way to meet the needs of people like that.”

I tried to say, “Technology is almost there. We almost have the power to analyze and act on the individual needs of people.”

“Technology could never do that.”

Fine. I’ll end that debate before it can begin. Don’t try to teach the 40s Baby about webforms.

I switched gears. “There are a lot of needs for accessibility advancements in this country, and all around the world, you must know that.”

“Subsidizing people’s lives is a waste of money, and if we start taxing the rich, no one will want to be rich anymore.”

“What?” I practically yelled at her. “Are you seriously trying to say that if someone told you that you could only have $500 million, you’d stop pursuing $500 million, knowing you’d have to stop there or have the remainder be collected as taxes?”

“You can’t tax the rich.”

“Because they won’t want to be rich anymore? Are you really trying to argue that the idea of only having $500 million would put an end to obscene income by people like Jeff Bezos, or Bill Gates?”

I thought back to her comment about charities, and how she argued against taxes on the basis that billionaires are “always donating to charity,” as if the need for the existence of charities isn’t evidence enough of systemic problems caused by income inequality and hoarded wealth and resources.

Our hour of exercise was up. We stopped speaking, cleaned up, and walked out to the car. On the drive home, she tried making comments again about how climate change isn’t a big enough issue to care about, how no one should be making her feel guilty for driving a car, and that pollution is the “real problem.” I told her that reducing her trash production not only helps prevent pollution, but causes less resource consumption that contributes to climate change via environmental destruction a la deforestation, mining, overharvesting, irresponsible water use practices, and anything that contributes to atmospheric temperature rise that melts permafrost, releasing methane. Even if human activity itself isn’t releasing methane directly, all of our actions cause warming trends that release trapped gases from ice sheets that make the atmosphere unlivable. She asked, again hoping to stump me, “What can be done?”

Reduce your use of paper products and single-use plastics.

Cut out a meat meal every day, or as often as possible.

Stop using things with palm oil in them.

“Like what?”

Like soap. It contributes to the extinction of orangutans and reduces the number of trees we have that can filter air for animals to breathe.

“Yknow the most dominant gas in the atmosphere is nitrogen.”

And we could make efforts to increase populations of nitrogen-fixing bacteria by making healthier environments for plants that then produce oxygen.

This was, I guess, too many steps for her. She resorted to a cheap line, “I’m not buying those reusable grocery bags.”

We arrived home. I said goodbye, and I laid down to cry.

I’m still not done absorbing it all, and I’m sure I left something out, but this is the best I could do. I’d really like to have a discussion about any of these topics, so don’t hesitate to respond. Even if it’s just words of encouragement, any sort of positive human interaction would be lovely.


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