Several years ago, my parents, liberal Democrats, were having dinner with another couple, conservative Republicans, at a New York restaurant. They were a close foursome -- long-time neighbors and friends who played bridge and took trips together and looked in on each other if one of them was sick. What they didn't do together was utter a single word about politics because they'd tacitly agreed to disagree on the subject -- until that night at the restaurant.
They were a cocktail or two into the evening when the Republican husband made a derogatory remark about Hillary Clinton. My mother defended Hillary and then all hell broke loose, sending my mother to the ladies' room fuming. Eventually, there were apologies all around, but there was a new fragility to the relationship.
"I was still very fond of them," said my mother of her late friends, "but we were never quite as close after that explosion."
Similarly my husband and I, both Democrats, were friendly with a couple, both Republicans, when we lived in Florida. We'd make the occasional reference to the fact that we voted for specific candidates and supported this or that bill in Congress, but mostly we saved our impassioned views for more likeminded pals.
One day, the wife and I were on the phone and she said, out of the blue, "Why don't you like Republicans?"
I was taken aback. "I don't not like Republicans," I assured her. "I just don't agree with their stances on many issues."
"Let's not do this," I urged. "Whenever people try to have a civil conversation about politics, it inevitably gets personal."
"No it won't," she promised. "Just tell me why you don't agree with me on things."
I inhaled deeply and, against my better judgment, began a calm but comprehensive summary of why I believed what I believed. I was in mid-sentence when I heard her sniffling.
"Are you crying?" I asked, incredulous.
"Yes," she said, breaking into a full-on sob.
"I'll be right there."
I hung up and dashed over to her house where I explained that I had only spoken up because she'd persisted and that our friendship was too important to let politics derail it. Life went on, but I vowed never to get drawn into that potential minefield again.
My husband and I now live in California and among our closest friends is a couple that votes Republican. They watch Bill O'Reilly, listen to Rush Limbaugh and think Dennis Miller is wildly entertaining. It's all mystifying to my husband and me since we watch Rachel Maddow, listen to Ed Schultz and think Bill Maher is wildly entertaining. We make an unlikely foursome, politically, and yet there is so much that we do have in common.
She's a book-loving, movie-loving, laughter-loving author of novels like I am. He's a soft-spoken, stiff upper lip, let-others-have-the-spotlight type like my husband. We have fun when we get together and we're there for each other at the drop of a hat.
I have other friends who've asked, "How can you be friendly with people who voted for Romney and hates Obama?"
Here's how: I don't bring up politics and neither do they.
Did I call my friend to offer my condolences the morning after Romney lost the election? Yes.
Did she appreciate the gesture? Yes.
Did I gloat over Obama's victory? No, I said I knew she must be disappointed and left it at that.
Do I wish we could have watched the election returns with her and her husband over a fabulous meal and an equally fabulous bottle of wine, just the way we watch the Academy Awards together? Sure.
Did I have to restrain myself from picking up the phone to schmooze with her about how Harry Reid said John Boehner was running a dictatorship and Boehner F-bombed Reid in return? You bet.
But why go there when I know it could provoke bad feeling?
What my friend and I do agree on is that we both want what's best for our country; we just have different ideas about how to accomplish it. We also agree that being on opposite sides of the aisle doesn't tell the whole story of our relationship.
"Are we so defined by our politics that we have nothing else to offer each other?" she asked the other day when I told her I was writing this post. "You and I have respect for each other. That matters."
Respect is the key. If you have respect for your friends and their intelligence, you don't try to ram your opinions down their throats and they don't try to ram theirs down yours. Chances are neither side will budge, so what's the point?
Friendships are a life raft, especially as we get older. We need positive, supportive, caring people around us -- people who cheer if we get a book deal, who call to ask how we're feeling after a doctor's appointment and who won't lace into us about the debt ceiling. Life's too short for partisan bickering between friends. We can leave that to Reid and Boehner.
What you want is someone to hang with near where you live. Approach this scientifically. Having a friend who lives an hour's drive away will mean you won't see them as much as the person who lives closer. So think global, but stay local. That means your local coffee shop, the local branch of the public library, they local chapter of the Sierra Club, or the local college that offers evening courses.
If you play tennis, join a club or take a few lessons at the community center. If you like to throw parties, volunteer to run the annual fund-raiser at your synagogue or church; when the board thanks you publicly at the dinner, everyone will learn your name. If you hike, join the Sierra Club. If you bicycle, join a biking group or enter a race in your age category. Here's the one caveat about following your interests: Nobody ever met anyone while watching "American Idol" from the couch.
Be open to the idea that it's OK to have friends who are older or younger. The fact that they are in different stages in life just means they bring a different perspective to the table. While a 14-year-old won't be interested in socializing with a toddler, that 10-year age gap dissipates when they get older. Why not say yes to the 30-somethings who invite you to join them for drinks after work? Invite them over for dinner with their families and get to know their kids. Their views on the world may not match yours precisely, but variety is the spice of life.
If you are post 50 and uncoupled, you might find that traveling isn't as much fun. Call it the Noah's Ark theory, but in general, we like to go places paired up. There are services that will help you find a travel room-mate. Not only does this give you someone to talk to over dinner, it cuts down those single supplements that some tours and cruises charge. Friendly Planet runs one such pairing-up service. Road Scholar offers many active adult adventure vacations here -- offers to find you a roommate if you want. Their programs and generally educationally based and draw a well-heeled and educated crowd. Cruise ships do a pretty good job of making sure solo travelers find people to hang out with; group dining arrangements go a long way toward conversational icebreaking.
Even if you've never been a joiner, now may be the time to get yourself out there. Got a new puppy or an old dog who needs some new tricks? Find a community dog-training class. If you like to cook, take a cooking class. Participate in the 5K run for charity, even if you walk the final three.
Keep your smart phone with you and ask for numbers. Sure it may feel a little awkward to say to someone you just met "Hey, I really enjoyed talking to you on this Sierra Club hike but the next one isn't for two months. Would you like to get together for a hike before that?" Worst they can say is no.
With Skype and apps like FaceTime, it's easier than ever to have face-to-face visits. Don't assume your old friends are too busy to talk to you on the phone. Most cellphone plans include free long-distance calls and for those that don't, there's Skype. Invite friends who live a great distance to come and stay with you. Show them your city. Friendships are like gardens; it's often easier to tend to an existing one than grow a new one from seeds.
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