Training for Trump: Writer Claire Dederer Learns Lessons from Her Son
A recipe for bonding: hiking, podcasts and discussion.
This past summer our son signed up to do a five-day hike in the backcountry of Olympic National Park. OK, I signed him up. He agreed to go.
Willie is a fit enough kid, but the hike involved some serious miles and altitude, so he needed to do a bit of training. Nearing 50, I’m not ashamed to admit that I needed a bit of training myself. No, I wasn’t going on the hike — I can imagine no hell more hellish than a backpacking trip with a bunch of teenage boys — but I’d had a sedentary spring and was starting to resemble Harvey Keitel in the nude scenes from The Piano.
So it came to pass that my son and I spent a good chunk of our summer going for very, very long walks on the trails near our home on Bainbridge Island. To entertain ourselves, we invented something called the Podcast Book Club. We listened to a podcast for the first half of the walk, and then discussed it on the second half. As we left the house each afternoon, we stopped at the bottom of the front steps and synced up our phones — “OK, go!” — and we were off. We did this every day. My son is 14. I’ve been a mom long enough to recognize this as one of those fleeting idyllic phases that happen every so often, and I made time in my schedule accordingly. (One of the perks of being a freelancer.)
I seem to remember something else happened last summer — what was it again? Oh, right, it was the ugliest, most contentious, most heartbreaking election of my lifetime. Each day brought a new outrage. The entire country was in thrall to the spectacle, and Willie and I were no different. The Podcast Book Club was overtaken by politics. Our go-to’s were the NPR Politics Podcast, Nate Silver’s poll-centric FiveThirtyEight, and our absolute favorite, Keepin’ It 1600, hosted by Obama and Clinton speechwriters. For the long view, we added in some history podcasts.
Willie has an intensely analytical mind, a love of game theory and an infallible moral compass. He quickly became my favorite person to discuss politics with. He’s better informed than most adults, and his wit and buoyant spirit lifted me whenever I started to despair. By August, our legs and lungs were stronger, we could power up the steep hill at Blakely Harbor, we had a solid understanding of both the Electoral College and gerrymandering — and Hillary was ahead in the polls.
Willie’s big August backpacking trip was a success and those lovely long walks were soon but a memory. By mid-October,
we were in the grip of the school year. Willie’s spare time was spent doing homework and hanging out with friends. Meanwhile, the first Comey letter came out and the polls were tightening. We did what we could. My 17-year-old daughter and I made calls and doorbelled for the Clinton campaign. But all of us — me, my daughter, my husband, Willie, every Democrat alive — felt nervous.
Our family watched the election returns with our closest friends, who have kids the same ages as ours. As Michigan and Wisconsin turned red, the girls began to cry. We turned off the TV, almost without discussion, and filed out into the night. Under tossing Douglas firs, we walked stunned and silent in a loose group. Willie and I found ourselves paired off, making our way down a road we’d hiked many times over the summer. The night was pitch-black and I felt as lost as I ever had.
“What do we do now?” I asked Willie, my chief political interlocutor. “We ran the centrist candidate. We tried to meet the Republicans in the middle and they voted her down. They chose a far right-wing lunatic. So do we push further to the left? Do we become extreme, in order to balance their extremity?”
Now I was ranting. “I mean, my values are progressive values, not centrist values, but I was able to compromise and support Hillary! And they just went further to the right! That’s so messed up! Now what?” I couldn’t stop crying; my sense of betrayal was total.
Willie put his arm across the shoulders of his hysterically weeping mother and thought for a while. Then he said: “Maybe compromise itself is one of your values. Maybe you believe in compromise.”
It was the single moment of grace in what became a long string of black, black days. Even at that moment, as I shuffled along in the dark, dumb tears streaming down my face, it seemed to me a great thing to have a son who could comfort me in this way. Not with mushy platitudes, but with logic, reason, and a deep understanding of the issues.
As the post-election weeks go by, my own belief in compromise has begun to wane, and I feel more radicalized than ever. Even so, the essence of that moment remains with me — the fact that my son was speaking to me not just out of compassion, but also out of knowledge. These are the people we need to grow right now — people who can educate themselves, who can reason, who can consider the issues carefully. All those summer days, I had thought we were training for his backpacking trip, but we’d really been training for something else altogether.
The day after the election, we were too depressed to walk. And the day after that. But by the end of the week, we laced up our boots, put in our earbuds, and headed back out to the woods. Come what may, the Podcast Book Club would carry on.
Claire Dederer is the author of Poser: My Life in Twenty-three Yoga Poses. Her forthcoming memoir, Love and Trouble: A Mid-Life Reckoning, will be released by Knopf in May.