I don’t know if this is a true story, or the stuff of urban legend, but my good friend in Dayton, Ohio tells me this: on election day her mother-in-law was volunteering for the Obama campaign making calls to make sure people remembered to vote. The woman next to her called a couple who seemed on the elderly side and perhaps slightly hard of hearing.
Yes, the elderly woman said, they were going to vote, leaving in just a few minutes in fact. Who, if they didn’t mind the volunteer asking, were they planning to vote for? “Harold, (or, insert your favorite anecdotal name here)” the woman called to her husband, “Who’re we votin’ for again?”
“Votin’ for the knee-gar.” came the called out reply.
This is one of those unique stories that induces the strange feeling of wanting to laugh and put your head in your hands at the same time.
It also points out the nature of progress: never as straightforward as we might think. Rather, it is a circuitous process, cyclical, incremental- always two steps forward, one step back. Not only can you have the same country jubilantly elect the first African-American president and still harbor a tremendous well of racial prejudice… you even find those two powerfully conflicting ideas represented within a single citizen.
This ambivalence toward progress is alive and well in Vermont, and being unsure of how to react very aptly describes the way I often feel about living here. One can get frustrated by a myriad of “oh, come ON” anachronisms… farmers steadfastly spraying their corn with cancer-inducing pesticides even as the rest of the world gets steadily greener and more organic (“Why, I’ve used it for years, and look at me! I’m fine!”), a reluctance to upgrade our public buildings to even the most modest accessibility guidelines (“I don’t know anyone who really needs that, do you?”), and the penny-wise-pound-foolish thinking that proudly guides so much of our local governance (“Let’s sell the National Historic Register Town Hall building on the Town Green, and replace it with a trailer on the outskirts of town!”). Perhaps the most ever-presently irritating of all- this idea that you can’t move here and be considered “real,” as in: “a real Vermonter.”
Seriously, way more energy gets expended on the issue of Vermonter status than you might think. The other day I actually read a letter to the editor that praised a fellow citizen for selflessly donating so much of his time to raise money for good local causes. “And he isn’t even a Vermonter!” the author exclaimed. Translation: he moved here from somewhere else. Isn’t that great? Maybe we’ll even let him use the same drinking fountains as the rest of us!
I suppose I should be happy she didn’t use the pejorative term normally reserved for Those-Who-Moved-Here-From-Elsewhere: Flatlander. I can see it now: ” We should all be grateful for the efforts of M. R… He’s raised so much for deserving and worthy local causes. And after all, he’s only a Flatlander!”
Just when I want to throw in the towel I’ll hear news like I did today on the radio, that the Vermont legislature is quietly moving forward legislation to legalize gay marriage. I love this. I love the fact that, the hard-won victory of 2000 to legalize Civil Unions here wasn’t enough. As a population, we instinctively understand that a rose by any other name does not smell as sweet, separate inherently implies unequal, and semantics DO matter.
I have people who I love and care about, who are in my family, who are my dear friends, who are in what are officially categorized as “Loving, Committed Relationships.” It hurts me to think that they are discriminated against by law, simply for wanting the same rights and privileges we straight people take for granted. There’s enough discriminatory sentiment in the world as it is, without having to support it with unfair laws, unequal rights, separate vocabulary.
Which brings me back to semantics. You know, even the Velveteen Rabbit got to be real one day. Let’s decide to call a rose a rose. Let’s decide to call a loving union between two adult people a marriage. It’s amazing what a little vocabulary can do… after all, one man’s “knee-gar” is now “Mr. President” to all of us.
So I’m proud to be a Vermonter right now- or at least a person who lives in Vermont. Maybe someday, after we’ve rectified all the really important stuff, we could get around to changing people’s preconceptions about where one was born too. Till then, I’ll be a Vermontian at heart.