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Jeannie Ralston Headshot

How Small-Town America Taught Me to Be Open-Minded

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During this election season, as partisan acrimony is as intense as the ozone-less Antarctic sun, I'm trying desperately to remember something I learned during the 10 years I lived in rural Texas: How to open my mind.

After 14 years in Manhattan and Austin, I arrived in Blanco, Texas (population 1,200), filled with not-so-pretty prejudices about right-wing conservatives and Christian fundamentalists. At first my worst suspicions were confirmed. I found militia groups, Confederate flags and signs on ranches that read, "No Trespassing: Survivors Will Be Prosecuted." When two other mothers and I founded a Montessori school, one dad began a campaign against it, distributing fliers calling Montessori a New Age cult. I considered myself at ground zero of red-state thinking.

A year after the Montessori incident, I learned, to my horror, that my nemesis was going to be my son Gus's little league coach. I immediately wanted to withdraw him from the team. "That would be dumb," my husband said. "You'd be furious if parents wanted to pull their child out of a program you were doing because you're a liberal."

He had a point, so I decided instead to watch the coach vigilantly, listening for any hint of proselytizing, bias or plain dimness. But sitting on the sidelines that season all I heard was a lot of tenderness and encouragement. "Hey, it's no big deal," he'd tell kids who got upset about missing a ball. "It's all about having fun. Are you having fun? Are you having fun?" Gus grew to love his coach and his son, a teammate.

By the end of the season, Gus pushed to have his son over for a play date, which I agreed to, and soon I'd arrived at a shocking new assessment, despite every instinct to the contrary. His dad was a lovely man. Misguided, to my mind, but lovely all the same. I saw the family often and actually enjoyed their company -- though we never, of course, talked about politics.

It was during this time that a thoroughly counterintuitive thought occurred to me: To be part of a small town, or at least my small town, I had to be more broadminded than I had been living in a big city.

My years in Manhattan never taught me the kind of acceptance and tolerance that allowed me to befriend a -- gulp! -- Christian fundamentalist. The truth was that living in rural Texas had forced me to socialize with people I never would have associated with before. Narrow-minded, right-wing hypocrites. That's what I might have called them if I didn't have to get to know them. And in New York, I didn't have to get to know them (probably because so few exist in the city). I stuck to my own crowd of liberals, complimenting myself of my open-mindedness because I wasn't even fazed by drag queens or prostitutes walking the Meatpacking District. I was cool and jaded, but I hadn't been put to the ultimate test -- yet.

Now that I have friends (way) on the other side, I can in one breath shout at a TV news report about Sarah Palin supporters: "Who are these people?" In the next breath, I can answer myself, conjuring up a whole list of who these people are. Roger, my adored neighbor, who used to help me during ice and rain storms. The pig farmer who built our house with such a cheerful spirit. The fun-loving ranch wives who laughed through Preston Sturges and Billy Wilder movies with me at the Blanco Film Society. With any luck, maybe they think of me when they start to rail at liberals.

I know that I have the capacity to be as blindly partisan and dogmatic as anyone. I even left the U.S. three years ago because I felt I couldn't relate to a country that would re-elect George Bush. But I have a certain knowledge that comes out at my better moments. I'll be raging at those at the far end of the Bush or McCain camp, and then I'll have a flashback to my years in rural Texas and things will go all gray. I guess in the end that's a better color for the country than red or blue.

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