Rick Krizman describes the transition between dreaming about Barack Obama versus dreaming about Donald Trump, and also navigating empathy across widely partisan divides.
I admit it; I used to dream about Obama. Always at the White House, the same every time. Double circular stairways, mirroring each other, would rise to a long open hallway, where I first ran into him. He was checking his phone and gave me a casual hello. I said, Cool to see you, Mr. President, he said, Call me Barry, we chit-chatted like a couple of congenial strangers in a bar. The next time it was in a library off the same hallway. He wore a tux, there were other people milling around, elegant women, some fancy to-do. I apologized for my jeans and T-shirt, but he put his hand on my shoulder and told me to go get myself a drink. I never remembered what we talked about, nor did it matter. Each dream added to the White House of my imagination, the two staircases, library, a ballroom, and once even in their bedroom. Barry remembered me every time, would make me forget I was out of place, was no more than a refugee from some unfraught day-to-day tedium. I’d wake up feeling warm, loved; once I even cried a little. Such a snowflake. Sad.
Last night for the first time I dreamed of Donald. It was not at the White House, but at a school for the arts, where we were putting on a play. He wasn’t the president, but he was someone we all felt was special, for some unnamed reason. I hate to call it charisma. The mood was uneasy, as it often is in dreams. The play’s director, a Tina Fey-ish woman in stern glasses, was blocking a scene and told him to stand over there and I thought, Big mistake. But he walked to the spot with a serious expression like he was about to perform some immense task, toed up to the blue tape, straightened his tie, glanced around, looked at his feet. He had to speak a line and held his script away from him, curled his lips downward, and recited in a stilted, monotonous voice. We were all silent, embarrassed for him; he insisted on another try, this time over-enunciating every word as if each preposition, indefinite article, and conjunction had equal and immense importance. The director suggested we take ten.
At this point I would’ve expected him to chuck away the pages and stride out of the room followed by an entourage of briefcase-toting white men in matching suits. But instead, Donald remained in place, frowning at his lines, silently mouthing the words, until the director placed a hand on his shoulder and eased him toward a table littered with Styrofoam coffee cups. They sat together on folding chairs and opened a script between them like it was a child’s book. She appeared to be speaking slowly, drawing one finger beneath the lines, while Donald’s head bobbed up and down like one of those drinking birds, his eyes squinting at the page as if they were physically squeezing each word. Then I woke up, feeling disturbed in a manner I couldn’t account for; sad, in the way we once used the word.
Sometimes empathy needs a touchstone. There’s a woman I’ve known most of my life about whom I care deeply, even though we’re often on opposite sides of a political divide. We usually enjoy being each other’s most worthy adversaries but have barely spoken since the election, maybe worried about letting slip something that can’t be unsaid. Probably it’s just too soon. I’m crazy about her eight-year old daughter (I’ll call her Riley), who is the light of everyone’s life—sassy, loquacious, physically gifted, already an accomplished writer/model/actress, and an enthusiastic expert on most everything. Like any kid her age she wants to do good, to be liked. To sense the world revolving around her. She’d be the one to stay and practice her lines while everyone else went for ice cream, eyes scrunched in concentration like the Donald in my dream.
Riley’s mom is relentlessly cheerful and unfailingly positive, unlike often-despicable me, and now she’s distressed about having to swim upstream against this wash of hatred that’s spilled over since the inauguration. Today she told me Riley was at school—a good Catholic school run by the Sisters of Charity—when another little girl said that she hated her. Right out of the blue. Part of me, probably not the best part, wanted to point out what I considered the deeper cause of all this hatefulness, but I was too heartbroken imagining how Riley must have felt. I thought back to one of my earliest memories, when I was three and a girl my age said the same thing. I was shocked at how fresh the sting was so many decades later, wondering if it might have been an outsized determinant in the course of my life.
So I picture Riley wailing to her mom about the unfairness of it all and try to conflate those feelings with the sorrow I felt after dreaming of our man-child president who, his surrogates maintain, only wants to please, only wants to be liked. Like Riley. I try to imagine the two of them doing their homework together, deciphering lines from a reader, then later putting on makeup, doing their hair, arranging themselves in the mirror for the next appearance, the next show. I can imagine them fidgeting at their desks, struggling to write their names in legible cursive, to add and subtract so the answer is true, then on the playground, bragging about who’s fastest or biggest or who knows the most words. She’ll tell him “bigly” isn’t a real word, but will giggle and use it at dinner that night. I imagine them both feeling the thorn of rejection, maybe sobbing a little as they go to sleep because somebody was mean to them that day.
But the one thing I can’t imagine is trusting eight-year-old Riley with the keys to her mom’s Tesla, waving goodbye as she drives herself off to school along the twisted cliffs of the canyon road, the dashboard too high, her legs too short for the brake pedal, her little fingers too tiny to get a firm grip on the wheel.