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A Conversation with Sophia Raday

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Love in Condition Yellow: A Memoir of An Unlikely Marriage, is Sophia Raday's new book exploring marriage, identity, fear, and peace. Raday's memoir about marrying "the other" describes the microcosm of our contemporary American dilemma, the schism between left and right, liberal and conservative, and the ways that our society has become divided. Writer Teresa Burns Gunther had just finished reading Raday's memoir when four Oakland Police officers were murdered in the line of duty. Troubled by the growing divide in her country and in her own community she was curious to learn more about this peace activist married to a soldier/cop and their struggle to find love and peace in a time of fear and division.

Teresa Burns Gunther: What does "Condition Yellow" mean to you? To your children?

Sophia Raday: Condition Yellow is part of the concept of Color Codes developed by Colonel Jeff Cooper, who was one of the foremost firearms and personal defense experts in the world. I like to say that if Gandhi is my guru, then Colonel Cooper is my husband's!

Condition Yellow is the general state of alert that Cooper recommends any time you are out in public, and it means, specifically, bringing yourself to the awareness that your life may be in danger and that you may need to do something about it.

My children are too young for the phrase itself to have meaning, but we are certainly teaching them to have people safety skills, with the help of a fantastic family safety program called KidPower.

TBG: Do you feel less safe now that you live your life in "Condition Yellow?"

SR: Such an interesting question! Is denial (Condition White) better than awareness? That's a very individual decision. In Condition Yellow, I am in control. I concede that the transition from White to Yellow was uncomfortable at first because I had to acknowledge danger, and at first that made me fearful. So much of life's choices -- from our individual relationships to any of our public policy choices -- involve a balancing of love and compassion with fear and protection. My husband and I found -- that underneath our outward appearance of opposites attract -- we had very similar struggles with fear and similar aspirations to be courageous. I believe I have come to a place where I have found a balance, where I've found love in Condition Yellow, if you will, and am balancing compassion with awareness.

TBG: Your memoir looks deeply at the requirements of meaningful relationships: the importance of learning to speak honestly, to listen, to honor and accept. Do you think the struggles in your friends' marriages are so different from those in yours?

SR: Not so different at all. That's why I wanted to write this book. My husband and I appear to have vast differences, so vast that in many people's minds (like mine, when I first met him) they seemed to preclude successful partnership. And yet of course everyone has differences in their marriage (and their friendships, family relationships, etc). I found understanding, managing, and coming to terms with these differences to be the key to transforming differences into emotional closeness. Differences aren't bad, and agreement is not necessary for intimacy. That's radical! There are techniques for getting underneath areas of difference to a very rich terrain that you can explore together as a couple in a way that brings you closer and expands your world.

TBG: Before you met Barrett, you dismissed him as a "gun-toting Republican" and viewed a date with him as a violation of your core beliefs. How would you say your "core beliefs" have changed through your relationship? And Barrett's?

SR: The long answer to this question is my book because that is essentially what Love in Condition Yellow is about -- how I change because of my relationship with Barrett. But the short answer is that I come to a new conception of "peace." I start out as someone with very strong opinions about peace and who thinks that peace would best be achieved if the people who disagreed with me and "my side" would be proven wrong. Through falling in love with Barrett, arguing with him, having a friend of his killed in the line of duty, having a baby just before 9/11, living on an Army base, struggling with having a second child, struggling with my own identity as a military wife and more, and ultimately coming to terms with my husband's deployment to Iraq, I change into a person who sees peace achieved when divisions are dissolved through curiosity and acceptance rather than from "my side winning."

TBG: The forbidden fruit is always sweetest. Do you think that part of your attraction to Barrett was that he was the other?

SR: Absolutely! I had always been an adventurous dater. Barrett's "otherness" appealed to me -- along with his sweet smile, gentlemanly manner, and... well, let's not forget the uniform!

TBG: You refer to your husband in the acknowledgements as a "real man." Do you find that women are intrigued, titillated by your husband, his uniform?

SR: No question. And not just women! It's interesting that my husband is most comfortable -- and perhaps for that reason -- most handsome, when he is in either his soldier or police uniform. He is commanding! And women, men, and especially kids sit up and take notice.

TBG: How have your family and friends accepted, or not accepted, your marriage?

SR: We've now been together thirteen and a half years, so all of our family and friends have at this point accepted our marriage and most have come to love and admire Barrett. At one point in Love in Condition Yellow, I had to choose between Barrett and my old friend/roommate Jaime, with whom I'd always planned to co-habitate, even once we each found a romantic partner. That didn't work out, and it seems on the surface to have been about politics. But really the conflict stemmed from the familiar turmoil with your "while you're single" best friend that occurs once you find your mate. It often disrupts the best friend relationship, at least for a time. Today, Jaime and I are close. In fact, she surprised me by coming down from Portland and attending my book launch party.

TBG: In an earlier essay in the New York Times ("Tie-Dye and Camo Don't Mix") you wrote of your post 9/11 life: "This isn't the life I wanted. I never signed up for the global war on terror." Do you ever feel that the cost to your family: your husband's commitment and service, and yours by virtue of sharing his life, is inequitable, unfair?

SR: Yes. On the military base where we lived, I noticed it seemed somewhat taboo to voice this feeling. Yet I certainly felt my family's sacrifice (being apart for fifteen months) was unfair. I think virtually every military spouse feels this way at some point. For me the deployment was absolutely grueling. There were more times than I care to remember when I yelled at my kids. Times when I sat on the middle of a messy floor and just cried. I don't have much family in the area, and I knew almost no other military wives, none in fact, whose husbands were also deployed. I felt -- at times -- utterly alone and overwhelmed. We had only had six months with our adopted daughter, who was then fifteen months old, when Barrett left us. My five-year-old son was so angry shortly after Barrett left that he punched his hand through a window and ended up in the hospital with fifteen stitches. So the cost to my family felt very real.

And yet, now that we are through it (and Barrett has come home whole), I recognize that we also gained something as a family from the experience. Before Barrett left for Iraq, I worried the deployment would pull us apart, that it would lever open the doubts and differences he and I had worked so hard to bridge. But oddly, it did the opposite. We gained a kind of admiration and thankfulness for one another that have taken our marriage and family life to a higher level of stability and joy.

TBG: How did September 11th change your life?

SR: Gosh, in so many different ways. First of all, I confess I was very much in Condition White up until that point in my life, by which I mean, I was very na�ve about the threats to our country. So 9/11 caused me to re-evaluate my worldview.

It also signified a dramatic change for my family. Part of how I became able to envision a future with Barrett is that he offered to make more time for our relationship by leaving the military once he had finished twenty years. When 9/11 hit, Barrett felt he couldn't possibly leave the military. This set off a tension between duty and family that is a main thread of the second half of Love in Condition Yellow.

Lastly of course, 9/11 changed our country dramatically and set off divisions about patriotism and duty and fear that Barrett and I had to confront in a very personal way. Just like the country's, my family's military commitments grew way beyond what I ever imagined. And I was thrust into a very foreign world as a military wife.

TBG: For all its self-congratulatory rhetoric, Berkeley is not a very open-minded place. Do you find people judge you and your family because of your husband's work?

SR: I don't think people "judge" us per se, but I sense a sort of wariness on many people's part about my husband because of his work. One recent Halloween my son chose a police officer as his costume so my husband put his uniform on too. (I was a robber and our infant daughter was a bag of money...) People had all kinds of negative reactions to my husband in uniform, saying things like "that's the scariest costume I've seen all night."

And also of course people don't know really understand what our lives are like. I suppose this shouldn't surprise me because this is exactly how I was prior to meeting my husband. But frankly it can be frustrating when people jump right into a political debate rather than ask us about the experience. It's so easy to talk about how you should react in the dangerous scary situations police officers and soldiers find themselves in (and the pride and anxiety of the families), but so few of us really experience it.

TBG: Is it hard to live in Berkeley when you and your family are paying a greater price for America's security than the rest of the country?

SR: Sometimes, yes. When my husband was deployed, only a few people acknowledged it. It felt to me like most people in my community felt sorry for me, but they didn't see themselves connected to my situation, that my husband and our family were doing something of service to our nation, and therefore indirectly, for them. It became quite clear to me, for example, that my son's school (where he was then in first grade) was not going to do anything. Whereas for the child of a friend of my husband's, the school had an assembly and had the child talk about what her father was doing in Iraq and what it was like for their family. After her presentation, they surprised her with her dad coming home on leave, and the news media covered the whole thing. This wasn't Texas or Alabama by the way: it was New Jersey. When I heard about that event, I asked my son's teacher to do something to acknowledge my son's situation. Once I approached her, she was a hundred percent supportive and she had my son do a slide show for the class about his father being in Iraq. Then she had all the kids write a letter to the troops under Barrett's command. My husband hand-wrote every one of the children back. Because he was working fifteen plus hour days 6.5 days a week, I asked him why he didn't have some of his troops help him write the return letters. He explained that I had no concept of how many letters the troops received there. In other communities, every single classroom is writing letters, maybe monthly; and kids are also doing it at home with their families.

When my husband returned from Iraq, he came on a regular chartered plane for returning troops that always comes through Dallas. There are hundreds of people there every single day of the week, welcoming troops home and thanking them for their service. They hand out homemade cards and cookies. Needless to say, it is very different in the Berkeley/Albany area.

TBG: What response did Barrett get from his fellow officers and servicemen and women about your memoir?

SR: They are mostly very supportive. Many police and military officers and spouses have bought the book. The former Oakland police chief attended my book launch party. The Oakland Police Officers Association lists my events on their website. Still, you can't expect to write a revealing book about your all-business, police officer/soldier husband and think he's going to get away without some ribbing! But I'm not too worried. Barrett's pretty tough; he can handle it.

TBG: You refer to him only by his first name "Barrett." Was this to protect his identity?

SR: "Barrett McAllister" is a pseudonym. I asked everyone who appeared in Love in Condition Yellow whether they would prefer a pseudonym or their real name (except for children for whom I automatically used pseudonyms). For my husband, the choice was a no-brainer. He is a rather formal, private man, who is not interested in the spotlight.

TBG: Do you think we as a people are more polarized than in the past? Can it change?

SR: I think Americans were very united after 9/11 and that unity was tragically squandered. Then we hit a period of great divisions, really sad and scary divisions, which I personally experienced when I was outed as a Kerry supporter on the playground of Carlisle Barracks when my family moved to Carlisle so that my husband could study at the Army War College. I think Obama has done an incredible job of healing many of our divisions. How to bring the folks on the right who now feel very disenfranchised back into the fold? I'm guessing the first step is to provide them some kind of forum for expressing their rage. But not in a rant. In a manner that would get underneath the sloganeering and the demonizing to the underlying sense of betrayal or the sense of being voiceless and left out.

TBG: The conflicts you wrestle with in your marriage are emblematic of the conflicts faced by our nation, our communities, and our neighborhoods. Do you see the lessons of your marriage as a lesson for America?

SR: To some degree, yes. First I hope that the differences that my husband and I managed to overcome will be useful to others seeking greater connection with life partners, friends, neighbors, relatives, who are either a little or very different. To make a small step toward greater understanding between individuals could make a big difference in our country.

Is it also possible that what my husband and I learned as individuals -- that we could feel heard and understood by each other, without agreement, and that the connection forged by dialogue transformed the distance between us from something vast and jagged into something softer and much more easily traversed -- could be translated into a reconciliation mechanism for larger conflicts? I would like to think so. It's infinitely more complicated, but this is the kind of thing I ponder on long swims and while doing the dishes.

TBG: In marital disagreements, you've said that you might say, "Honey, you aren't being present with me." Whereas your husband might say, "You're messin' up, Troop!" How does he tease you about being a lefty?

SR: He calls me "Mommy the Commie."

TBG: What do you think you, as a lefty, offer Barrett? Do you think that your optimism and compassion are a source of hope for him? A touchstone of what's good in the world?

SR: I think we balance each other. He recently told me that one of the reasons he couldn't marry the woman he dated before me -- even though she was really great -- was that she didn't push back enough.

There is a scene in Love in Condition Yellow of my second date with Barrett, where he tells me a story about having to shoot someone. Since being arrested and somewhat roughly treated by police officers, I had always experienced cops through my own visceral fear, and that drowned out any compassion I might have had about how afraid they are. But in this scene, I can feel Barrett's body tensing next to mine, and suddenly his fear is so real I can smell it. I write, "...I understand his strong exterior protects layers of fear, of foreboding, just like mine. Suddenly I wish I could show him a different world, of rich crumbly loam, beach fires, the happy shouts of children."

TBG: What was the hardest part of your book for you to write?

SR: The hardest part of the book for me to write was, unexpectedly, the "Sophia" character! I thought I would just write what I thought and people would understand when I was making fun of myself or being wry or showing what a goofball I was. But often they didn't. Thank goodness for my writing group and other readers who were brave enough to tell me this after my first draft of the memoir. After I realized that my own life lessons were not clear enough, I went through a deep soul-searching about how to express how I was changed, and it not only made Love in Condition Yellow better, it made me a humbler, better person.

TBG: Was there anything that Barrett didn't want you to discuss?

SR: My husband has been extraordinarily gracious about being my Muse. One of his most extraordinary qualities is that he is not motivated by external approbation. He is motivated instead by a deep sense of honor and by the satisfaction of making a contribution. While he is rather uncomfortable about the publicity around Love in Condition Yellow, he has participated as necessary in promotions because he loves me. There were very few limits he put on the memoir. He did read the manuscript while in Iraq and made a few requests for changes. But very few overall.

TBG: Do you worry about raising children in a mixed marriage? Do you and your husband disagree about how to present social issues and opinions to your kids?

SR: No. I don't worry at all. I think my kids will get a fuller picture of the world than most. My husband and I agree that differences aren't the problem (in fact they can be opportunities); it's how differences are expressed that can be a problem.

TBG: How would you feel about your children pursuing careers in the military?

SR: If my children tell me that their hearts lead them to military service, I will support them and be incredibly proud of them for pursuing their ideals. Same goes for if they become artists or social workers or peace protesters. Will I also be afraid for them if they go into the military? Of course.

TBG: You say, "He travels in and out of the world of my nightmares." We expect our police to go fearless into our nightmares and demand they do so with a restraint, discipline, and compassion that we as a society cannot match. Do you think that cops and soldiers are held to an impossibly high standard, much higher than the average American?

SR: Yes. No question, you put it quite beautifully in fact. And I would say police officers, in particular, are held to an impossible standard. Or maybe another way to say it is that some of us take everything the police do well and toss it in the garbage without a moment's acknowledgement, and yet fixate upon everything they do poorly. The media doesn't help with this phenomenon.

We have made as a society, a very important step since Vietnam in grasping that "supporting the troops" need not mean supporting our foreign policy. But I do not see the same general understanding extended to police officers. Many people, like Sophia Raday prior to meeting Barrett, conceive of police officers in a very flat cardboard cut-out fashion, hold them accountable for the divisions between mainstream society and the marginalized "inner city." There is a narrative in some circles right now that police officers are stupid, fat, racist, callous and brutish. This is, to say the least, a caricature. The truth is, I believe, far richer, more complicated, full of contradictions, and as vastly full of human courage and frailty, as it is heartbreaking.

TBG: On March 21st of this year, four Oakland Police officers were murdered in the line of duty. How did this affect you and your family?

SR: We were absolutely devastated. It was the first time that I felt the pull to retreat behind the blue line. An intense experience like that bonds you with those that share them and tends to separate you from those who are outside it. But I still believe it doesn't have to. If we can share our experiences authentically, we can break down the barriers of intense experience. At least in personal relationships. But it's been interesting to me to feel the pull to one "side." I notice that since the shootings, I am more fiercely protective of police officers and their families.

TBG: Most couples struggle to find other couples where all four truly enjoy each other. Do you think this has been an even greater struggle for you and your husband straddling your two different respective communities?

SR: Yes. Add to that that my husband -- aside from needing the camaraderie of being a police officer and a soldier, a bond which I don't share -- is not very interested in socializing. But the few couples we both like are really special interesting people. I have tried to embrace the difficulty and to see that it allows me to have a very independent social life and as a way of sifting down to the couples most suited to be a part of our lives.

TBG: What writers do you most admire?

SR: Marilynne Robinson, Jeanette Winterson, Ann Carson, Annie Lamott, Curtis Sittenfeld, Norman Rush, Caroline Paul, and all the members of my writing group, the Motherlode Writers.

TBG: What are you reading now?

SR: I am in that sad in-between book period. The last book I read that I really enjoyed was Curtis Sittenfeld's American Wife. I really related to how she described the protagonist's marriage to her husband as "a life lived almost in opposition to itself." I have shared that feeling at times, particularly as a military spouse. I too have had to navigate sometimes competing obligations to my husband and my self. Love in Condition Yellow is the resolution of this conflict.

TBG: What helped you through the process of writing this book?

SR: Wonderful childcare providers, giving myself some time each day to walk or swim and think, and the encouragement of my writing group, my editor Amy Caldwell, my friend Caroline Paul, my children, and my husband.

TBG: What are you working on now?

SR: I'm working on a piece comparing the re-integration in our relationship after my husband's Iraq deployment to the re-integration after the four officers were killed in Oakland. But I sense a rest and fallow time coming when promotions die down, and I can feel ideas percolating. I'm thinking about a series of double-profiles of leaders on different sides of hot-button political issues. Still, I'm not quite sure what will catch fire. It's kind of a fun phase.

Teresa Burns Gunther’s work has appeared in Stones Throw Magazine, Flashquake (Editor’s Pick 2008), Literary Mama and many other literary journals. New fiction is forthcoming in the Pen And Brush 2009 Anthology. Other recent interviews can be found at Bookslut, Shambala Sun, Glimmertrain’s Writers Ask and Mary Journal. Burns Gunther holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Saint Mary’s College. She teaches writing at Lakeshore Writers Workshop in Oakland, California where she lives with her husband and two sons.

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